The journey to Ukraine: an introduction

In August of 2016, I was filling my hands with mattress in an apartment overlooking a position 300 meters to the southwest across an open field. Russian-backed separatists were knocking at it with large caliber mortars. The position, an abandoned industrial building connected I think with grain collection, was, I learned later, the Headquarters of the Battalion-sized mechanized infantry unit dug in about 500 meters to my east. Tanks, anti-tank guns, mortars and artillery on both sides conversed with each other, while I conversed with a God I’d forgotten existed.

How to describe an exchange? Terror at each loud, bone-rattling bang! that cracked the evening, in groups of five or seven or more. Terror when the Ukrainian Army fired back, scratching the night’s heavy quiet like nails dragged down a chalkboard during a test. Terror at the machinegun fire on both sides. A general sense of growing anxiety when silence dragged on too long—a minute or two meant something really furious was about to start. Pondering the extraordinary, like, “why have humans developed such destructive power, when outer space remains unexplored,” hoping that holding such thoughts might insulate me from madness. This particular fight went on for a couple hours, then intermittently flared up after. I’d never heard anything like it for so long, not even during two tours in Afghanistan.

Battle damage typical of the back-and-forth long range artillery and mortar duels between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainians

The next morning, I, an interpreter, and a humanitarian aid volunteer—our host—took us to survey the damage. The morning wasn’t hot; I remember a whiff of autumn in the air, which had disappeared by noon. Another thing I remember was widespread and conspicuous superficial damage—destroyed buildings, fires, unrepaired roofs. We arrived at an apartment that had a chunk blasted out of its master bedroom. The lucky inhabitants (away for the evening) had returned to take stock of the damage. They let us in and strolled around, flabbergasted at their bad and good fortune, as catastrophe victims who live often do. There wasn’t much for me there; I heard their story and recorded it, but couldn’t actually fix anything. If I could have, besides, what difference would it have made?

Standing in the bedroom, looking out the hole, I did notice that it was impossible to determine the shell’s origin. Had an errant round fallen short, was this an episode of friendly fire? Or is that how the round had impacted, travelling at some obscure angle from the east? I wasn’t trained in post-blast or crater analysis, so I didn’t know. So much of the conflict in Ukraine is unknowable to the casual observer, and trying to sift through the misinformation, bias, and layers of historical propaganda and get at something approaching a truth is the work of years.

Why I decided to go to Ukraine of all places

Ukrainian patriots may excuse my ignorance of their country. Growing up in the 1980s and 90s there was never any compelling reason to learn about anything happening east of the Alps. Recent history was either finished and therefore an uninteresting abstraction, or so inchoate as not to be worth learning, as I thought as a sheltered young man. I doubt I knew of Ukraine’s existence until the mid-1990s, when an angry Ukrainian interrupted Kramer and Newman’s game of Risk on an episode of Seinfeld. I was vapid and insular.

Rumors of Ukrainian Mi-6 pilots flying provisions out to our distant Forward Operating Base during my first deployment to Afghanistan, with the 173rd Airborne, helped open me to the history eastern Europe. By then I was generally aware of Ukraine’s role in the world—another post-Soviet state muddling halfheartedly toward capitalism, stuck somewhere in the late 19th century model of plutarchy.

When Euromaidan started, I tried to travel there during my spring break at Columbia Journalism School, in February/March of 2014, and report on the revolution. There was a photo of Ukrainian Red Army veterans of Afghanistan protecting student protesters that fired my imagination; I wanted to talk to these people, to trade stories about Afghanistan, meet people with whom I’d shared a geographic if not temporal overlap. People who’d seen Afghanistan’s mountains from different vehicles, in the context of international communist revolution. I ended up working on my master’s thesis about systemic racism in the VA instead, in New York City.

But Ukraine stayed with me, the images of Euromaidan, of long-haired grizzled Soviet veterans of Afghanistan (whom Svetlana Alexievich called Afghantsi), the cheering yellow-and-blue cheeked youth, the overmatched army fighting a desperate defensive war against Russian aggression. I read vociferously about the place, and imagined my reception as an ally and friend.

Things didn’t work out at all how I thought. The first Afghantsi I met thought I worked for the CIA, and I was not able to shake this suspicion. I had unusual access as a result of people assuming a freelance journalist was actually working for The Agency—at least as far as the first meeting would go—and then, when people realized I really was simply a freelance journalist, they’d lose interest in working with me further.

Following opportunity, I embedded with a U.S. Army training mission in Ukraine’s West, and wrote about what I observed there. That piece went viral, and opened up reporting possibilities that had previously been closed to me; I traveled along with a group of journalists and freelancers to Mariupol, and then to Lviv and to Odesa, to do more sociological and cultural research. The longer I stayed, the more questions I had about the country and its people.

All told, I stayed about two months, cutting short my trip by a few weeks when I severely injured my left foot (a fracture of my left calcaneus that took years to heal properly). Two months was long enough to realize how much more I had to learn about the country—long enough to feel the rhythm of a foreign but intuitively familiar song. Long enough to see in the mysterious interplay between the town and the city a connection that I’d forgotten, echoes of a way of life that was ending in the United States just as I was being born.

Why I decided to go to back

Although it was clear to me by the fall of 2015 that Russia would not be pushing further in Ukraine, that the truly dangerous phase of the war was over, the alien-ness of the place still haunted me. Understanding a people about whom I knew so little, understanding a place that had witnessed so much history, and communicating that back to friends and countrymen felt like something important I could do on behalf of my own culture. I assumed, probably naively, that my writing abilities were sufficient to do Ukraine some justice. Given the relative lack of written material about Ukraine at the time, and even to a certain extent to this day, I also assumed that anything of sufficient quality would be better than nothing.

Kyiv in the wintertime

I traveled back to Ukraine in the winter of 2015-16 to write, and then again in the summer of 2016 to do a project for a non-profit organization (Center for Civilians in Conflict or CIVIC) reporting on harm being done to civilians living in the kilometer-wide demilitarized zone between Ukrainian and separatist-held territories. I ended up staying in Ukraine with a few breaks until September of 2017.

While there, it was possible to take a closer look at Kyiv’s monumental buildings, the wide boulevards, the public housing works thrown up in the 1960s and 1970s when Ukraine’s population kept booming upwards and outwards, and the battlefields (so many battlefields) of the 20th, 19th, 18th and 17th centuries.

The following two essays explain what I saw in Ukraine, and draw some conclusions about what is likely to occur there in the nearest future. From my home in Connecticut today, it all seems impossibly distant. Nevertheless, the photos of me with various people whose lives became entangled with my own, and mine with theirs, I feel obliged to attempt the task.

Why did Saturday Night Live edit MacGruber’s Racial Sensitivity Training?

My first encounter with the episode of MacGruber in which he gets a Black employee occurred in 2010 when I was visiting my parents’ home on leave from the Army. My friend Mike, who was at the time studying for a Master’s Degree in History at UConn, was visiting. It was the first time we’d seen each other since leaving Fort Benning, and we got into my dad’s wine cellar. Unbeknownst to us, my dad had hoarded bottles of white wine far beyond their drinkable date. What started out as a celebration quickly became a brutal slog through rancid bottles we couldn’t bear to throw away. The conversation touched many topics, including racism and fascist tendencies in the United States. Mike later described the result as “the worst hangover I’d ever had in my life.”

The next morning, we needed to return to our regular lives. Brunch was sullen and quiet—somehow I had the sense that Mike blamed me for the bad wine, which was a mistake, it was obviously my father’s fault for leaving the wine in his cellar for us to pillage—but after a couple cups of coffee we both perked up, and were in the process of saying our goodbyes when he said he wanted to show me something.

What he wanted to show me was MacGruber. In addition to being slightly hung over myself, and not a fan of the current cast—still, in 2010, hung up on the Will Farrell years—I felt exhausted and was not looking forward to facing a five hour drive back up to Fort Drum. I was ready to dislike the sketch.

Nevertheless, upon watching it, and without any other knowledge of Will Forte’s character, I was immediately carried away by its bold satirical representation of racism. We watched it over and over again, astonished by the way in which it captured the dangerous fragility of white identity in the U.S.—MacGruber’s incompetence, his well-intentioned attempts to overcome deep-seated racism, his ultimate return to fear and violence as a means of negotiating with Daryl, the black employee.

Watching it again in 2020, the sketch loses none of its power or urgency. At a time when Senate Democrats engage in well-intentioned but performative appropriation of African culture while meaningful reforms to police departments and culture receive the usual lip service and long-suffering optimists hold their breath for something, anything more, what else can one do but laugh when MacGruber himself dons a dashiki after a trip to Africa, only to emerge utterly unchanged by the experience?

Watching the sketch again recently, however, I noticed that it had been edited. The sketch consists of three small episodes, originally ordered properly in sequence. The edited version exchanges the last episode with the middle.

Why would Saturday Night Live have changed an extraordinarily amusing and essentially true critique of white culture through the character of MacGruber? Let’s look at the original sketch, and the edited version.

Originally, the sketch begins with MacGruber, his black employee Daryl, and his sidekick Vicky attempting to disarm a bomb. Over the course of the bomb disarmament it becomes clear that MacGruber has obtained all of his knowledge of “Black culture” from gangster rap and exploitative movies, and his attempts to connect with Daryl—whose name he repeatedly mispronounces as Duh-Rell while Daryl patiently corrects him—all fail. Finally, in an attempt to lighten the mood, MacGruber begins to tell a time-worn joke that is simultaneously racist, sexist, and anti-semitic. The bomb explodes. That is the first episode of three.

When the next episode begins, we learn that MacGruber has been forced to go to racial sensitivity training, which he regards as useless and stupid corporate bullshit from H.R., as evidenced by his telling racist jokes in private. He, Daryl, and Vicky are stuck in a room with another ticking-time bomb, and MacGruber goes to great lengths to explain to Daryl that he’s learned his lesson about racism and racist language—this attempt falls apart over a specious disagreement over what language to use when referring to a black pen. Daryl, fed up with MacGruber’s hollow self-righteousness, attempts to hand MacGruber the pen in order to disarm the bomb, but MacGruber pepper sprays Daryl in the eyes—then defends his actions to a horrified Vicky, claiming that Daryl had rushed him, and was high on PCP, as Daryl’s eyes were bloodshot. Vicky points out that Daryl’s eyes were bloodshot because MacGruber had filled them with pepper spray. Now desperate to defuse the bomb, MacGruber asks Vicky to hand him another, different pen, referring to it as Chinese, Asian, and, ultimately, “yellow,” concluding just before the bomb detonated that he was, in fact, a racist.

In the third and final episode, MacGruber has taken some time off to do soul-searching, connected to his depressing epiphany. He goes to Africa, he befriends Spike Lee on Facebook, and presumably, immerses himself in both African and Black culture. When he, Daryl, and Vicky are locked in yet another room with a ticking time bomb, we see that he’s wearing full native African garb, though it quickly becomes apparent that his trip has not been as successful as one might hope—he continues to mispronounce Daryl’s name, and, in announcing that the group will be able to take Martin Luthor King Day as a holiday, he mistakenly refers to Dr. King as “Martin Rufus King,” then compounds the error by confusing Daryl’s name. MacGruber makes one last sincere plea with Daryl for friendship, acknowledging that although he has a long way to go, he was committed to making progress together with his Black employee. Reluctantly, Daryl extends his hand to meet MacGruber’s—but MacGruber interprets Daryl’s move as a sign of aggression, and MacGruber pepper sprays Daryl in the eyes again, just before the bomb explodes.

Putting the episodes out of order creates the following problem: the original episode 2 begins with the racist, sexist, and anti-semitic joke MacGruber told at the end of episode 1. When placed after episode 3, the beginning makes little sense, as episode 3 does not involve a joke, though episode 1 does. Furthermore, the final shot in episode 3 depends on people being prepared to receive an important message about racial reconciliation, to see a white and a Black hand clasped together in friendship in spite of everything that has happened before—an expectation that is hilariously (and depressingly) subverted when MacGruber ultimately cannot overcome his racism.

Once you watch the sketch in its proper order—1, 2, and then 3—it is impossible to see or understand it in any other order, such is the harmony of the sketch’s composition, and the power of its message, which is that white prejudice and racism is too great to overcome through superficial and privileged (taking time off in Africa being the height of privilege) acts, even when those acts involve direct exposure to African culture and a sincere desire to reform. What makes the sketch perfect is that up until (and, thus far, including) the present moment racism continues to exist in jokes, and in systems, and in individuals. Black men and women correct and oblige the overwhelming, wilful ignorance of white men, hoping against hope that something will eventually change for the better. For their trouble, they are greeted with eyefuls of pepper spray.

Now to the logic behind editing. The logic does not appear to have anything to do with humor, as the sketch is less funny and more confusing exchanging the third with the second episode. Instead, it has to do with a desire to have MacGruber achieve positive character growth over the course of the sketch—not to achieve self-awareness and be unable to overcome it.

There was a YouTube conversation that perfectly captures this theory—I have no idea whether Andrew Barrett was connected to the edit, but he has understood the logic behind it correctly.

So, in order to create a character of MacGruber capable of self-growth and learning lessons, Saturday Night Live edited “racial sensitivity training.” In other words, rather than face up to an unpleasant but measurable truth about racism in America and white privilege, an organization dedicated to satire (and which busily satirizes Trump, who is notoriously incapable of learning or self-improvement) willfully scrubbed it free from racism.

Reordering episodes in a sketch about racial sensitivity in a way that ultimately absolves the central white character of racism (the sensitivity training… worked?) is ironic, and depressing, but in its own way, it underlines a deeper truth about America. We can’t imagine ourselves as anything other than part of a progressive redemption narrative. Maybe if we were to recognize our flaws and accept them at face value, we could begin to work on a way forward, together. If we don’t, we’ll keep resorting to pepper spray.

How a protest becomes a revolution

Revolutions always start slow and local, as protests. They always involve some specific act of injustice, such as the act of self-immolation that kicked off the Arab Spring. There is anger and rage on the part of the population. Let’s say it’s justifiable anger, and comprehensible, valid rage, which is easy to identify because what one feels upon seeing what led to the protests is a sense of empathy and kinship. Like the killing of George Floyd. Nobody watches that video and thinks to themselves “that’s right, that’s okay.”

Euromaidan revolution of dignity, February, 2014. Photo via Wikimedia, by В.Власенко

Then, as was the case in New Haven, peaceful citizens rally in a sign of solidarity, but also to make their collective voice and presence heard. Politicians take protests seriously, whether they do anything about it or not. It takes a lot to get someone to interrupt their routine and endanger themselves by violating laws or ordinances by taking to the street. People don’t rally or protest for no reason. A crowd of 1,000 is hard to put together on a cold winter day when individuals could be inside, or on a warm spring day when they could be enjoying a day off at a park or beach. There are many more reasons not to form up in a group with a bunch of strangers, than to become one with the masses.

What happens next depends a great deal on law enforcement. Sometimes protests turn into riots—if the injustice is sufficiently great, and the numbers of people sufficiently large, there is some looting and burning, carried out both by angry citizens, and a small number of people with more malicious motives. If the police and military are able to contain and absorb that popular fury—nonviolently—and politicians promise to pass laws that will lead to meaningful change, the protests slowly or quickly subside. Widespread employment helps—if one needs to get back to work, if one has a place to go on Monday, a family depending on you for bread, protesting is always going to take a back seat to the practical requirements of one’s normal life.

If the police and military overreact and begin hurting or killing people, protests and riots spread, and become violent. As the police and military contribute bad or negative energy to crowds—which thrive on positive or negative energy—they grow and become more violent themselves.

The great danger of police and military violence is that meeting the protests with bullets, gas, and batons risks killing more protesters. And when that happens, one has a new impetus for protests, a new anger at injustice, a new cause. Each person who is killed or hurt protesting provides fuel for the protests to grow in size, and as the energy becomes increasingly negative. A desire for retribution begins to replace what was initially a call for reform—vengeance takes center stage. Ultimatums are issued.

In Ukraine, in 2013-14, the protests at Maidan square took on a life of their own when the police started shooting protesters. Those unarmed Ukrainian civilians became heroes, and political requests by the crowd became political demands from the people of Ukraine. The brutalization of journalists and students in Kyiv and the killings that followed did far more to turn Maidan into a national movement than the demands they directed at their political administration. Ukrainians were used to being told no, and not getting their way, and having to listen while corrupt oligarchs dictated the terms of their lives. Seeing their children and mouthpieces beaten and murdered was a bridge too far.

Once a sufficient number of protesters have been killed, the protests and riots pass beyond the ability of the state to control them. That is the moment at which they become a revolution. In Ukraine this never actually happened—what happened there was the president, Viktor Yanukovych, scared at the possibility that he would be forced out of power and handed over to an angry mob—forced to face justice—simply fled the country, abdicating his position and abandoning the people he’d sworn to lead. New people came into power, but no lasting political changes were accomplished.

Similar with the Arab Spring—some political changes were made, at least for a time, but when the Muslim Brotherhood won the first legitimate elections held by the state in years, the military stepped in to restore power to its traditional owners.

Great violence followed in the wake of both Ukraine’s “Euromaidan Revolution” and the Arab Spring—violence that continues to this day in Libya and Syria, and also in Ukraine, which lost control over Crimea to Russia and is continuing to fight in the east of their country against Russian-backed separatists.

Protests turn into riots, spread, and at a certain point, can turn into a revolution, which stands a very low chance of actually effecting positive and lasting political change.

At each step of the way, it’s possible to avoid creating the conditions in which protests grow and spread. This depends largely on what is done with the police and the military, and the attitude and actions of a country’s political leadership. Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mobarak, who died recently of old age, stepped down from his position after 11 days of protests in Egypt. Viktor Yanukovych is still in exile somewhere outside Moscow, living off the cash and gold he looted on his way out of Ukraine.

According to the Washington Post, Donald Trump has spent some time hiding in a bunker, and a quick evaluation of his Twitter timeline offers no evidence of a sane and mature leader taking steps to dispel the protests’ energy—rather, he seems hell-bent on creating more problems and blaming others. If he continues with this strategy, which rarely works for a leader in the short run and never, ever leads to stability in the long run—Trump’s current refusal to empathize with the protests or protesters and refusal to attempt to head them off in person, combined with a doubling or tripling down on the use of violence to resolve the problems, will help the protests and riots continue to grow and spread, and America will totter and stumble into an easily avoided revolution from which it will be difficult to extract itself with honor and dignity.

It’s Skunk Time

We have a skunk in our yard, now. It lives in an area beyond our fence, overgrown with weeds, vines, and thorns, and it navigates its way in each morning to hunt for grubs, grunting and snuffling through the long green grass as is its portly habit. We don’t begrudge it its meals, nor do we attempt to interrupt its course; we simply endeavor not to provoke its impressive tail. The skunk is part of our natural habitat, and we are only incidentally a part of its habitat, no matter how many houses or condominiums go up in the town of Branford, Connecticut.

There are skunks abroad, too—it seems to be the time for them. I’m talking here about the misguided and ludicrous attempt by a handful of former Army special forces veterans at loose ends, and a mob of disgruntled military defectors to topple the government of Nicolas Maduro.

Emailed or texted to me from veterans across the political spectrum—progressives like myself, centrists furious with how the Trump administration is smearing America’s good name by sanctioning or tacitly condoning groups like Silvercorp, and conservatives who want the coup carried out by active duty special operations with support from the Navy and Air Force—the bumbling failure has occasioned mirth and merriment from all, and gone some way to breaking down barriers erected by political grandstanding.

No comedy would be complete without a fool as its central character, and Jordan Goudreau delivers. A grifter who got his start peddling private security to schools in the aftermath of Parkland, Goudreau’s vision extended much further than protecting a bunch of boring, needy kids. There’s no glory in that. No, Goudreau had his sights on a world-historical gesture; indeed, during a strange video interview, he referenced Alexander the Great in describing his motivations for initiating the assault. It wasn’t Gaugamela, he isn’t Alexander, and his mission will go down in history as a farce that makes the Bay of Pigs invasion look deft by comparison.

(An aside: King Alfred the Great’s defense of Wessex from the Danes starting within the swamps of North Petherton would have been a better historical reference point, even though it would mean inverting Maduro (the man seen as legitimate political leader of Venezuala by a majority of Venezualans) and Juan Guaido (a man supported primarily by foreign powers, including our own, the U.S.))

Goudreau’s absurd attempt to hustle his way to becoming the military leader of an entire country doesn’t come from nowhere. Yes, he’s a grifter whose specific con is violence. Yes, he’s successful enough in a certain context to parlay his military connections into security gigs for President Trump, as recorded in a typically wonderful Bellingcat piece (another side note: Bellingcat established that Russian led separatists shot down flight MH-17 over Ukraine! Eat the whole fucking thing, don’t just eat the parts you like, Russia). Yes, he has the ambitions of an Alexander or a Julius Caesar… yes. And in America, today, a man with that kind of vision and pride, that appetite for power, let’s call it by its name, is in precisely the correct place to fill his ambitions. This is the America of freedom, of getting wealthy. The War on Terror has furnished a population of well-trained warriors who have been indoctrinated into the redemptive potential of murder in the name of God, or America. And the exploitative and specialized economy has made it so that even in the best of times when those warriors try to find an honest job, a vessel into which to pour their skill and strength, they’re mostly limited to jobs in law enforcement, private security, and shadier overseas work that pays extremely well, and leaves one to care for the cost of PTSD and any other injury that’s incurred when (or if) one gets home.

Even that, the modern American mercenary economy, is a kind of pyramid scheme. What Goudreau had in the back of his head when he established SIlvercorps was probably Erik Prince’s glimmering (and lucrative) intelligence and armed empire, formerly called Blackwater and currently called Academi (names shift in this business, staying one step ahead of whatever catastrophe or moral outrage the mercenaries have stumbled into at the moment) sounds good enough when you’re signing up: $150,000 a year to drive a truck through the desert? $200,000 for 6 months of work securing a compound outside Tripoli from disorganized militias? Comrades who had successful careers or stints with the Rangers, the SEALs, or, like Goudreau, the Green Berets? What’s the downside?

One downside is that those companies don’t owe their employees or contractors medical care after service. Another is that going to Iraq or Yemen or—in this case—Venezuala as a mercenary might mean you get paid, and might mean you get nothing. There are other, smaller annoyances, such as being hung out to dry completely when a mission goes south, as the Green Berets in Venezuala are about to discover.

Finally, serving in the U.S. military affords you some essential social credibility—legal credibility too, yes, but more importantly, you’re taking part in something that the entire country is engaged in. That, whether one likes it or not (many don’t) is the ultimate price of living in a democratic system, with elections: ultimately, whether you voted for the president or not, he’s your president, and the things done in America’s name belong to each and every American in equal portion. This is why although I protested against invading Iraq, I also joined the military after our invasion. This is why I didn’t vote for George W. Bush, but accepted my commission from a deputy of his. When a democratic country decides to act, there is some legal accountability that resides in every citizen. Not even captive subservience to two corporate and self-interested institutions like the Democratic Party and the Republican Party can totally erase that essential truth—a truth that separates the U.S. from men like Jordan Goudreau.

And there have always been lunatics like Goudreau in U.S. history. Aaron Burr, the former Vice President famous for killing Alexander Hamilton, later set out to build an empire with 60 adventurers (similar numbers to those trained and led by Goudreau’s SIlvercorp comrades). Millennial protestant evangelical Christianity combined with the cult of liberty and seasoned with radical capitalism have and will always lead certain people, covetous of power, to stab at prominence. Elizabeth Holmes, Bernie Madoff. Warren Buffet. The books are full of successful world-devourers, and some, like Jeff Bezos, even own their own newspapers. Why wouldn’t they continue to emerge?

Still, there’s something peculiar about Goudreau emerging now, specifically, and being able to go as far as he did. Prince emerged from the Bush administration, and a war in Iraq that had spiraled far beyond what even disinterested and distant architects like Rumsfeld and Bremer had imagined. Dick Cheney, the Vice President, with ties to Halliburton and KBR—companies worth billions, that provide hundreds of millions of dollars worth of service to the U.S. military every year to this day—was Erik Prince’s template. Cheney was (and is) the sort of parasitical beast who makes wars to make money—whose greatest ambition is to have a bigger Cadillac Escalade than his neighbor, to have a wall full of plaques, to be feared because of his wealth. Prince started out with a lot, and cannot be described as a “self-made man,” but he did something with that wealth—he saw an opportunity, and was, in his own way, a man “of his time.” He built a contracting company, a brand, and it makes him a lot of money. It gets him a seat at the table with the big boys.

Prince built an evil institution whose very purpose is an anti-enlightenment, anti-humanist affront to the democratic American project. Mercenary groups that allow governments to wage war without invoking war, without voting, without deliberation and assent. He did so at a time when the democratic project was busily being undermined by corporations at every turn, when large multinational corporations were laying the legal groundwork for Citizen’s United.

Goudreau, too, is a “man of his time,” every bit as much as Prince was of his. Goudreau’s gambit to overthrow Venezuala must certainly have been tolerated by Colombia’s government, which is to say, it must have been tolerated by the CIA, and the State Department, and the United States. We can say without being conspiratorial or indulging in fantasy that an operation like this, tweeted at the White House while ongoing, was something that was known, if not actively supported. Goudreau is one of those people who rises to power, if he can seize it, when there is no central authority saying that one cannot do so. Trump, a meglomaniacal narcissist who shits on a gold toilet, is Goudreau’s model, in the same way that Cheney is Prince’s.

There is a poem by W.S. Merwin, in his 1967 collection The Lice, called “The Last One.” In it, a desire to cut down an entire forest unleashes an malignant force that overcomes everyone who comes up against it—that force, which is not nature, is the very greed that propelled people to cut the forest in the first place. Here’s a section from the end:

Well the next day started about the same it went on growing.
They pushed lights into the shadow.
Where the shadow got onto them they went out.
They began to stomp on the edge it got their feet.
And when it got their feet they fell down.
It got into eyes the eyes went blind.
The ones that fell down it grew over and they vanished.
The ones that went blind and walked into it vanished.
The ones that could see and stood still
It swallowed their shadows.
Then it swallowed them too and they vanished.

We are at a precarious moment in American history, with our people, with our laws, with our ways. Humanity is precarious, because people die—good people die, evil people die, and the only way to circumvent this fact and create history is to make something capable of enduring beyond death (“the shadow”). Donald Trump is, whether he knows it or not, telling men like Jordan Goudreau that they should aspire to godhood, and that these dreams of dominion are sufficient to protect them from failure and catastrophe. They can’t, and won’t.

A Means to an End

A plot of land in my home town between I-95 and Route 1 has been under development for about thre years. When developers started in on it, I was irritated that the place was going to be torn up for no apparent good reason. During my lifetime—and maybe even before that—the plot had been a series of massive granite boulders, bramble, and trees, unsuitable for cultivation, forestry, or business. It served a dual purpose as land that could be turned into something of economic or social viability, and also, less importantly, as home to dozens of common birds and squirrels.

Now, most of the trees have been cut, the brambles cleared, the land leveled, and the mighty, massive granite stones are systematically being turned into high piles of gravel and fill for other development projects. The land is being made useful for economic purpose—a grocery store perhaps, or a place to get gadgets fixed.

A development project on Route 1 in Connecticut is just another means to an end, rather than an end unto itself.

From the perspective of the developer, who owns a plot of land on Route 1, it’s easy to see why the trees and boulders and brambles had to go—no value was being created. Probably, he was paying taxes on the land. Probably, he saw Route 1 as a convenient place for economic development: cars and motorcycles pass by, while trucks transit I-95 from the other side. What more could a developer, what more could a businessman ask for?

From the perspective of the town’s treasurer and its chamber of commerce—a perspective shared by some of the town’s citizens—a development project and the business that follows is the bottom line, it’s the object. Life begins when one has something undeveloped on which to build, and, on a certain level, it culminates when that thing has been developed and turned into a profitable business. One measures this progress by checking the town’s budget: how much tax it has collected, versus how much tax it needs. My town is not special in that it functions like this, many towns do. Many towns must, in the United States of America, and in Europe, and in many other places, too. It’s a condition of the modern world.

Driving by the development site recently, I noticed that work had been put on pause; like so many other projects across the world, halted by the spread of COVID-19. Half-made into whatever it will become, the once-whole rocks scraped and broken by human ingenuity, gravel piled high, the area reminded me not so much of its potential, but of an irreversible decision to move from one state to another, progress, change, the urge to do something rather than nothing—and for what?

***

The climax of Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight, in which lawful Batman is pushed to the limit by an amoral and anarchistic Joker, involves a prisoner’s dilemma-style trial. Two ferryboats, one full of citizens, a ‘good’ boat, and another of prisoners, a ‘bad’ boat, are rigged with explosives, and authorities on each boat are given the means to detonate the other boat. Joker provides instructions to the boats: each will be able to rescue themselves only by destroying the other boat. If neither boat destroys the other, Joker himself will sink both boats at midnight.

By the time midnight rolls around, and the boats have elected not to destroy each other, Batman has arrived to stop Joker from detonating them both. External action is needed to preserve the lives of the people on the boat, but that was also always going to be true, two boats full of people can’t defeat Joker physically, they can only thwart his plan by refusing to play by the rules.

It is this refusal that is interesting, this deliberate choice not to act, not to destroy in order to preserve. On a moral level, acting to destroy is, in fact, the worst thing one can do. Still, the audience and the people on the boats understand that there is some hope for them; they can act to destroy the other boat and through this horrible act, at least preserve their own lives. “Noone wants to get their hands dirty,” a nameless civilian trapped on the ‘good’ ferry says with a minute to go before midnight. “Fine, I’ll do it.” He stands up, and rationalizes why he ought to sink the other boat, takes the detonator from a captain in the national guard, looks up at the clock, hesitates, and then—nothing. He lays the detonator down in its case, and returns to his seat. He and everyone else on the boat are now resigned to their fates

This is the true climax of the movie—the rest of it is a series of plot resolutions and exposition on the significance of what the audience has observed. Two groups of people decide not to murder in a way that benefits them—not to “take action”—and in so doing they both save and condemn themselves.

***

The startling scenes of heroic inaction in Batman: The Dark Knight are among the film’s most moving. There is a cost, a sacrifice being made—but it is truly selfless; a willingness to have the self destroyed in an unpleasant and painful way, in order to preserve some hypothetical moral integrity for the self. Of all the strange and extraordinary moments in the movie—the explosions, the exciting tricks and gadgets deployed by Batman and his allies, the clever plans and counter-plans, the threats and deaths and carnage—the prisoner’s choice is the part that most stands out, that defies expectations.

In the logic of the movie, we understand the civilians and the prisoners can’t blow each other up, it makes no sense, but in our own personal lives, we know the opposite is true. We know that America invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, and Japan after Pearl Harbor, we know that Israeli special operations hunted down Nazis for prosecution and revenge, we know that it doesn’t take a deranged madman holding us prisoner to want righteous vengeance. We know, too, that what is necessary in a situation like that is action, is to do something quickly, decisively, and heroically—and that we’ll sort out the mess afterwards.

Someone needs to get their hands dirty.

***

The quarantine that has stopped so much economic activity around the world is confusing precisely because it cuts against what we expect to have to do. The heroic sacrifice to which people are accustomed, the grand gesture, that’s not needed. Quarantine threatens the underlying assumptions we’ve held about what constitutes good or productive behavior. Sacrifice is supposed to be long hours at work, a bigger house, a successful career. Heroes are recognizable by their acts; doctors and nurses without enough PPE to go around, or multinational CEOs who have efficiently commanded their own time and that of others to create value.

Sacrifice is not supposed to be nothing, and quarantine is precisely and exactly that, nothing. Not going out, not buying, not shopping. Not “self-improvement,” not education—it can be those things, but isn’t necessarily, the end of quarantine is simply the negation of public activity, or, otherwise, inactivity. Quarantine doesn’t involve developing land, or building (unless it’s building temporary capacity in hospitals), or making deals. Sacrifice, like action, is supposed to be tied to progress in some economically measurable way; the stock market going up, or a country getting stronger. It’s not just sharing hardship—that, by itself, is attached to and signifies nothing. Quarantine is nothing, and entails a sacrifice of negation.

More than anything, the unsettling position in which Americans find themselves now, of having to do “nothing” while the economy slows and one’s job becomes precarious or is deemed redundant, explains why there’s so much enthusiasm for an end to the quarantine, in spite of the death and illness such an action might cause. People—Americans in particular, to judge from my town and surroundings—are accustomed to “doing,” to “getting things done.” The entire economy and culture is geared to this way of thinking, from one’s professional life, to one’s family, to how one productively spends one’s vacation seeing notable sights, or having useful experiences. The economy depends on this activity, and individuals depend on this activity, as well. It is how the world goes around, especially an economically and socially interconnected world, a global world rather than a local or parochial or individual world.

But what is needed now is inaction, forbearance, husbanding one’s resources (and family). The urge to get back to work, to become productive, has been exposed not as heroic or useful, but selfish—solipsistic—and in the current context, counterproductive. What does that say about the system, writ large? This pandemic is part of life, pandemics (far worse) have occurred before in human history, we are not living in an exceptional moment. Shutdown is normal, and it isn’t evil or awful. It simply is.

Going back to work will solve nothing, and could make the pandemic worse. Being productive is only likely to accelerate infection and death, but that’s not a revelation that’s natural to us. We do not understand that the means to our survival lies in embracing a way of life and moral framework that’s completely counterintuitive. Or, we do know, and we fear that accepting that embrace, in the present, will mean learning something that cannot be unlearned—never, in other words, going back to the world as it was before COVID-19.

***

It’s not possible to make things whole again on that plot of land on Route-1 in Branford, Connecticut. It’s true that the area will serve no purpose for the foreseeable future: it can’t, nobody’s there to work the machines to clear the gravel or brush, and even if there were, there’s nowhere to move it—progress and commerce has stopped. What was land that served no use has become an industrial sore on the land, a reminder of a moment in time when someone thought it would be better to develop, to move and create, than to leave be, than to do nothing, for nothing’s sake. In the old world, before COVID-19, we thought inaction was a costly sin. In our current world, we’re learning that the opposite may be true.