The worst are filled with passionate intensity
Last weekend, my wife and I decided to go a hotel in Rockaway Beach, Oregon, an unpretentious beach town on the Central Oregon Coast, hoping that a trip to the ocean would reduce the considerable anxiety and anger that we both were feeling after the election. The place had a real bargain: for $70 a night, a two-room apartment about 90 feet from the ocean, with only the beach in between.
We hit the local cafes and bars for eating out. The Bar & Grill was toward the end of our list. The internet said the place had broasted chicken and my wife wanted that for dinner. We sat at the bar, as we often do, because it’s easier to have conversations with the locals.
On my left was an empty stool, and on the next stool over was a big man with a Dallas Cowboys hat and jacket. His wife was the bartender/manager. She had on an Ohio State sweatshirt. I love to gab with locals in a bar, so I started talking to the guy about the Cowboys. Well, I hate the Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, but I was careful to say that I loved the old Cowboys teams from the ‘60s and ‘70s but didn’t really care now how they did.
Someone down the bar said the guy was actually from Arizona, and his college team was Arizona State. He told me, yes, that was his team. He was vague about why he liked the Cowboys. His wife said it was the cheerleaders.
“One of the most admirable people in the country came out of Arizona State,” I said.
“Yeah,” the guy said. “And he was killed—you know how? With friendly fire.”
I already knew that. Then I said, “I have great admiration for the military, but one thing that really hurts me is that so many fine young men and women have been killed for a bunch of crazy bastards in the Middle East who hate us no matter what we do.”
He put down his beer, puffed out his chest, and said, “I guess you’re one of those Clinton lovers.”
I tried to get the conversation back on the military, in a positive way. “Look, what I’m saying is that this country has sent a lot of kids to die with nothing to show for it, beginning with Vietnam. I hate that.”
“We could have won that war. We never put everything we had into it. What kind of fucking shit are you talking here?”
He was loud. My wife was next to me. It pisses me off for people to be that way in front of a woman. Old School, I know, but there it is.
“Look,” I said, pointing my finger at him, “let’s have an understanding. We can say whatever we want to say except let’s not use the F-bomb and call names.”
He thought for a moment, took a sip of his beer. His wife came over and shook her fist at him and told him to shut up. He agreed with me to keep things civil. We shook hands on it.
We talked briefly about something else, I can’t remember what. Then he said something about Obama causing all the problems in this country and now things would be great. I said that Obama had at least kept young Americans from getting killed for nothing. “Fuck you,” he growled. “Fuck you, you goddamn liberal pussy.”
I said, “Fuck you, and shut your fucking mouth.”
“Go ahead, take a swing,” he said.
I have a standing rule about this. In this day and time you do not take the first swing unless you are being robbed or someone has moved to attack you. Otherwise, you will be sued or thrown in jail. So I put my right fist, tightly clenched, on the bar, clearly visible to him but just behind my right shoulder so I could hit him with everything I had if he made a move.
“You go for it, you fat son of a bitch, and I’ll knock the living shit out of you,” I said. He was at least ten years younger, heavy but very strong, as his handshake had shown. Maybe an out-of-work lumberman, or maybe just an asshole with a big mouth. But he just sat there. He was a bully, pure and simple.
His wife was beside herself. “I told you!” she screamed at him, shaking her head and retreating to the kitchen.
I paid the tab. My wife was not happy with me for having begun a conversation with the guy in the first place, but she was, thank God, agreeably intoxicated. As we walked past the guy she tapped him on the shoulder. He turned his face and she gave him a peck on the cheek, laughed, and we walked out the door. He had no idea what to make of that, God bless her.
Here’s what I hope I learned from this:
No doubt there are white people who have been left behind in the “new” economy. No doubt it is easy for many of these people to believe that identity groups have gotten all the attention, and political elites have either taken the white working class for granted or screwed them directly or deceitfully for years.
But, too often, their legitimate gripes are subordinate to the hatred they have cultivated over the last two decades, and especially the last eight years. Everything must be good or evil, and everything that is not blindly pro-white, pro-military, and anti-Obama is evil. As Yeats wrote, “the worst are filled with passionate intensity” and no longer have any real bearings, only irrational fear, hatred, and resentment.
The “alt right” has scooped them up and brainwashed them into believing that the worst part of themselves is now the best part of themselves, justified, heedless, self-righteous and authoritarian. It’s not just the economy, stupid. It’s humanity led once again to its darkest side.
My ill-advised visit to their dark place will be my last. I was close to being there myself. §
John Willingham is a writer and editor from Portland.