by Robert Fay
Kit Moresby, the enigmatic heroine of Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky sits in a café in a French colonial city in North Africa. It’s 1949 (or thereabouts) and on the terrace Arab men wearing fezzes drink mineral water and swat flies. Kit and her American companions have just arrived by freighter and they sip Pernod and discuss their initial impressions. They are planning on traveling into the Bled, the vast interior, where they hope to find lands and people untouched by the war and the contaminates of European civilization.
These three are the opposite of the “ugly American” stereotype of the post-war era. They are pessimistic, worldly and bored with America. If anything, their Americanness is revealed in their unwillingness to accept that life and suffering could possibly be synonymous. They are world-weary Bohemians who recognize the America of the 1950s will be a consumer-orientated project. These characters are, in a certain sense, proto-Beats, and in fact the actual Beat writers, men like William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac admired Bowles and eventually befriended him.
“It seems as though there might be some place in the world they could have left alone,” Kit says. She is a woman of omens. A person of great strength, yet because of the restraints of the era, must admit “other people rule my life.” She wants to truly live, to push aside the veil separating her from raw experiences, but she is fearful and superstitious. “The people of each country get more like the people of every other country,” she says. “They have no character, no beauty, no ideals, no culture—nothing, nothing.”
Port Moresby, Kit’s husband, is the force behind their wandering. He is a sort-of-nihilist with a masochistic interest in his own inner void and an idée fixe on going deep into the desert. “You’re right,” Port says. “Everything’s getting gray, and it’ll be grayer. But some places’ll withstand the malady longer than you think. You’ll see, in the Sahara here…”
This combination of nihilism and adolescent-like romanticism, with just a dash of fanaticism, eventually justifies Kit’s sense of foreboding doom. And one reason it all goes so terribly wrong is because Port, like some Orientalist à la an Edward Said’s critique, is searching for a fantastical notion of North Africa and the desert, one that doesn’t and never will exist. Kit’s search for purity, on the other hand, is an internal one. She seeks a kind of satori, or enlightenment, to put it in Zen Buddhist terms.
This search for purity is an evergreen human desire that will never be satisfied in our world. There is no virgin state, except what our imagination can invent. And in this world, there is only a state of becoming; one that is endlessly messy and unsatisfactory, because it involves human beings. But the purists will always remain unconvinced. Some of them, like Port, will only facilitate their own demise, but purity is like a contagion, and it can infect entire societies and empower men like Robespierre, Stalin, Osama Bin Laden, Augusto Pinochet and countless others.
I live just outside of Portland, Oregon, a city that has been justly praised for its cuisine, its quirkiness and its ridiculously-close proximity to forests, mountains and award-winning vineyards. On a global scale, Portland—it must be admitted—is nothing but a backwater, rightly overshadowed by Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. But the world’s political and social troubles continue to puncture the womb-like, warm-fuzziness of our Portlandia fantasies, despite the city’s best attempts to believe that a heavy concentration of liberal-minded citizens might exempt it from political hatred and violence.
On June 29th I found myself locked in the Muji department store in downtown Portland during a near-riot. Outside, Portland police in full tactical gear where trying to disperse and separate a street fight between antifascists, under the umbrella of Rose City Antifa, and a group of white nationalist thugs, known as the Proud Boys. I had seen the conflict unfolding a few minutes earlier, as I passed Pioneer Square and entered the store. I saw men with American flags and their black-clad antagonists trailing behind them. A police loudspeaker droned on: “Disperse. This gathering is now considered an unlawful assembly, you will be arrested if you don’t disperse.” I was tempted to remain and observe how everything played out, but I suspected I wouldn’t forgive myself if I took a bottle in the eye or spent the night gagging on tear gas.
Inside the store, a panicked Muji loss prevention employee rushed about the sales floor hollering orders to doe-eyed teenage clerks, before finally stopping in front of a table of ultrasonic aroma diffusers (sadly, they had no discernible effect on his nerves) to announce that both entrances were now locked, for safety, and he couldn’t let anyone exit. For a slight second, I caught a whiff of his panic. “Oh, this could be bad,” I thought. “Antifa’s going to smash in the ‘corporate’ windows and perhaps plunk me on the head with a cobblestone, on the odd chance that because I’m middle-age, white and male, I might be a Trump supporter and worthy of a good beating.”
But I got a hold of myself. He then said we were free to stay, but he’d also escort the willing out the back door if anyone wanted to leave now. I raised my hand.
Our guide scouted the first exit and decided it was too dangerous because an Antifa member had spotted him. We got hustled down another hallway to second exit which, for reasons he didn’t disclose, was also deemed unsafe. For a moment, the entire group seemed to pause and stare down at their phones, before the increasingly frazzled guide said we could leave “on our own” if we wanted, implying that any subsequent injuries would not be the responsibility of Muji’s loss prevention leader.
An African-American guy raised his hand and said, “I want to leave,” so I figured if he wasn’t afraid of marauding white nationalists, then I sure as hell shouldn’t be. The door was pushed open and several of us slipped out onto the street. I began striding north away from Pioneer Square and the troubles.
The irrationality of being a “Proud Boys” white nationalist in the racially-diverse America of 2019, should be obvious enough, but when you add the silliness of their organization’s name, it’s difficult not to have a big laugh at their expense. If you’re trying to form a militia of fascist toughs to do battle in the streets, you might be advised not to have “boys” in the group’s name. It doesn’t sound particularly intimidating. It think of the Boys Scouts of America or the Vienna Boys’ Choir, organizations that are not usually well-resourced for street fighting. And historically speaking, I found it unlikely that people would have been as fearful of the “Gestapo Boys” in NAZI Germany or the “Chicos Filange” in Franco’s Spain.
And yet, while I tend to be reasonable sympathetic to any group that is explicitly antifascist, I does seem ironic than many of the Antifa folks in Portland were dressed in head-to-toe black outfits (including masks in many cases). I suspect it was lost on them that Mussolini’s fascist thugs, the MVSN (Voluntary Militia for National Security) wore black uniforms and were nicknamed the “Blackshirts.”
The sad fact is that since the election of Donald Trump, street battles in Portland between white nationalists and Antifa are so common now that Rose City Antifa actually blogged about the Proud Boys rally beforehand and urged its members to show up. I’ve read corporate press releases that were less professionally-realized than this post; somehow the whole thing has a gotten a bit too routine.
And while there is no moral equivalency between white nationalists advocating racism and Antisemitism, and antifascists on the far left, Antifa doesn’t get a pass because they hate fascists. The following is from the Rose City Antifa FAQs section of their site:
Q: “Doesn’t stopping fascists from speaking make you just as bad as them?”
A: “Failing to stop fascists from speaking – that is, giving them the opportunity to organize to impose their agenda on the rest of us – makes you as bad as them. If you care about freedom, don’t stand idly by while people mobilize to take it away.”
It begs the question, of course, how exactly do you stifle the free speech of racists? Isn’t free speech protected in the U.S., however despicable it is? This is clearly a green-light for violence, and if you don’t force them to stop, please know you are bad as them. Not cool.
If the far left begins to more openly embrace violence, we should expect years of further social unrest, because America’s white nationalists—which now officially includes the racist President of the United States, Donald J. Trump—regularly traffics in hate speech, racial violence and intimidation. They are veterans who bring great expertise to this space. Don’t try to be more Catholic than the Pope as the saying goes.
As Port and his companions go deeper into the North African interior, they arrive in the town of Bou Noura, in preparation for a departure for the mysterious town of El Ga on the edge of the Sahara, where Port believes he’ll find what he’s come for. In Bou Noura, he talks with a French Army corporal who tells him his lieutenant, whom Port will meet with, was stationed in El Ga and can thoroughly brief him on the town. But Port doesn’t want this. “He determined not mention the town to the lieutenant, for fear of losing his preconceived idea of it.” And in a certain sense this is the American dilemma today, do we grapple with data or do we continue to resist facts because they are incompatible with our ideas?
Here are a few facts for the xenophobes and racists on the right, including President Trump: right now whites make up just 60.4% of the U.S. population, and in two of the largest and most dynamic states, California and Texas, whites make up just 37% and 42% of the population, respectively.
The future is decidedly not with Americans who tell their fellow non-white citizens, “to go back where you came from.” And that’s a fact, whether you are in Portland or Peoria.
Robert Fay’s essays, reviews and stories have appeared in The Atlantic, The Millions, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Chicago Quarterly Review, among others. He is co-creator of the Feeling Bookish Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFay1.