‘Lucid Dreaming’ - Lessons from a Brave Poet
Excerpts from RadPod’s interview with Jeff Sharlet - author of ‘The Undertow - Scenes from a Slow Civil War’
As we fight this fascist insurgency, I am trying to live a peaceful life. I do believe most of this world is beautiful and people love each other. I find evidence of goodness daily. I remind myself that dictators always fall, and they fall because good people fight back.
I am profoundly moved by the good people I have met along the way. My podcast team has interviewed the greatest, most inspiring minds of our times - among them, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Jason Stanley, David Pepper, and now Jeff Sharlet. My heart is so full from everything I learned from his long-form interview.
That Jeff is honoring our community by being our next ‘Speakeasy’ guest on Sunday is lovely. If you are not a paid member, please join us.
Jeff writes about the ugliness of the undertow in America, but he does so with grace and compassion.
Below are some of my favorite excerpts and lessons on ‘lucid dreaming’ from this brave poet:
On why he began the ‘The Undertow” with Harry Belafonte:
His voice was a sweet, beautiful voice, but he understood it as a weapon in a long struggle. I needed him there at the beginning of this book - it's very dark journey through what I call the Trumpocene.
I just couldn't bear to start with the full ugliness. I needed some hope.
But also because the hope that he offers is not cheap grace.
What a lot of people didn't realize is what a profoundly radical man he was all of his 96 years. How essential he was to the freedom struggle in the United States. He would look at the Civil Rights Movement, which he bankrolled, which he played this central part in, and understood that we hadn't won the fight, the struggle.
Mr. B knew that you keep going, and you're gonna get defeated. And then you keep going, and you're gonna get defeated, and you keep going. And that's the hope that we have.
We’re in the Trumpocene. I see three theological movements. The 2016 campaign, that’s the prosperity gospel, the idea that Christianity wants you to get rich, that's what Trump was promising.
2020 - that's a bastardized gospel, a gospel of secrets, QAnon conspiracies.
But then on January 6, 2021, we enter the age of martyrs with the death of Ashli Babbitt, and that centrality of martyrdom, what the Nazis called ‘blood witnesses.’ And that unleashes a whole new level of violence. And we're seeing it in Trump's rhetoric, which has grown actually more violent. And I don't want to diminish how violent it was all along.
The Broken Fourth Estate
The subtitle of the book is ‘Scenes from a Slow Civil War,’ but it might as well have been called, ‘How to Tell Stories About Fascism.’ As a journalist who's been covering the right for 20 years and has also been a media critic… I am stunned to see how much we get played again, we're doing the horse race again.
On Radicalized Churches
When you walk into that Church of Glad Tidings, Yuba City, California, you don't see any crosses. They've decided that the cross is weak tea. It's too wimpy. Instead, you have a pulpit made of swords, that this is war time theology, right?
What's dropping out in these churches is Jesus. They don't talk about Jesus too much. There is a warrior Christ tradition that they can tap into and right now, we see the surge also in a very poisonous masculinity.
I’d like to quote Sarah Jones in New York Magazine: “States do not face one another on the battlefield, there is no rebel government. Instead, the battlefield is everywhere. And combatants have, in a sense, already seceded from the United States. That the secession occurred in their minds makes it no less real. They are armed and they are backed by power and money. They have successfully enthralled a major political party and their allies are capturing courts and state legislatures. The other side is still catching up to the danger it's in.”
That’s the slow Civil War we're in.
On Ashli Babbitt
So Ashli Babbitt, 35-year-old white woman from Southern California, Air Force veteran storms the Capitol with violent intentions - she wrote about them. That's her knife on the cover of the book. That's the evidence photo, you can see it dated 1.6.2021.
She climbs up into a window leading a mob through a broken window, they smash the window, she comes up into it.
And we see on the video that very day, the two hands of the Capitol Hill police officer who shoots her, and it is the hands of a black man, and she's a white woman, and as a student of American mythology and American history, I know right away what's going to happen with that story.
And it happened within hours. First, they started saying Ashli - she was 135 pounds, she was in her 20s. Or maybe she was 16, she was just a little white girl. And they start shrinking her - she's 125 pounds, that's not going to work. She's 115 pounds. No, she's 110. They are making her into this model of white innocence.
Now, those not familiar with the history of lynching don't realize that at the heart of lynching throughout American history has been this kind of sexualized panic. This idea that black men are coming for our - possessive, you see - white women - a kind of property.
And that's the story that they began telling.
That's when the book really started to take shape. I said I'm going to follow the formation of this martyr myth.
Lucid Dreaming and Seesaw ‘Reality’
So at this rally for Ashli Babbitt in Sacramento, speakers describing a series of events have no bearing on what actually happened.
And I say, ‘Such is the seesaw reality of January 6, no cops were hurt’ - more than 150 actually were, five would die. A speaker George Riley claimed that after one battle involving pepper spray and a fire extinguisher, he and his comrades hugged it out with the police. Is this delusion? No. Riley’s smirk bespoke self awareness. Is it that this information is too obvious for his taste? It's more like lucid dreaming.
A deliberately surreal assault. I follow a telegram message one of the Proud Boy organizers sent on January 6, ‘I want to see 1000s of normies burn that city to ash today.’ It wasn't their own crimes that thrilled them. It was the prospect of drawing the many into their boogaloo vision - their Civil War dreams. The city still stands, but in my mind and the imagination of anyone who even now marvels how close we came, how close we still are - it burns.
A fascist aesthetic and a poisoned orchard
To go back to that moment in 2015 in the golden escalator, we knew Trump was bringing down a fascist aesthetic.
I see people saying, ‘If we can just take out the person who's giving the bad information.’ It's a little bit like imagining there's a bad apple here, and if we can just get rid of that bad apple then the orchard is fine. No, the orchard has poison in the dirt, the ground in which it's planted is poisonous. We got to think - we need to build bigger than that.
A little bit fragile
It's a social movement. We think that that's a term that belongs to the Left. It doesn't. Fascism is a social movement.
Now, the good news though, is that means like all social movements, it's a little bit fragile. Right? It seems to have a lot of momentum as a convergence, but social movements tend to crack up when you the strange bedfellows cannot abide one another.
What's great news, the impeachment of Ken Paxton in Texas, right? Yeah, when they turn on one another. And remember, for everybody, may it eat its own progeny before it takes over America.
It’s the fascism
At the end of the rally in Sacramento after a brawl between the Proud Boys, they're celebrating - they're posing for a group picture as they do after every fight. And so many liberals like to use fat shaming terms describe these guys. My problem with anybody is not their weight - it's the fascism.
That said, these guys were big. These were scary dudes. And they were all tactical armored up and brass knuckles and everything else. And they kind of turn on me and my notebook, and they're chest bumping me like a certain kind of man will. And I'm rescued from the situation by one of the Proud Boys who's not armored up. He's wearing a Snoopy t-shirt. And earlier, I had said, ‘I like your t-shirt.’ And so he says to his commander, ‘Don't worry, I vetted him.’ He doesn't even know my name. So here's also good news. The astonishing incompetence of these guys.
And then he says, ‘I vetted him twice, actually.’ And I'm like, ‘Hmm, you knew that I liked Snoopy. What else do you know about me? You don't know my name?’ Oh, I'm a white guy. And that's enough.
I talk about a guy up the road named Nazi Ralph. And that's not a figure of speech. I got to know Nazi Ralph when I stopped to ask about his flags - a Confederate flag in Vermont - he’s never been south of Boston.
But he's like, ‘Wasn’t slavery like 500 years ago?’ And suddenly you're in the imagination of this kind of stuff. He is a guy that I'm going to say many Killington skiers who liked to party have had dealings with and did they not notice the swastika tattooed on his hand or the worldwide white power? Surely, of course, they didn't pull up his shirt and show the swastika there.
But they probably noticed that he is always carrying a Glock because he always is. Loaded Glock on his lap while he's talking to me. Because he's clocked me. He says, ‘What are you?’ And I say, ‘I know what he's asking, as well.’ I'm a Jew. And then to get myself out of trouble in a cowardly way, I say, my dad is Jewish. My mother's not.’ He says, ‘I knew it. I talk to you, cuz you’re half white.”
People who aren't Nazis love it when you call them Nazis, because they know you got it wrong. They love it because it becomes a recruiting tool for them. ‘Oh, so then they're lying about that. What else is the Left lying about?’ Accuracy matters. If anything, if we're fighting a movement that is based on disinformation, accuracy matters.
The age of the surreal
We are in the age of the surreal.
I tell him: “I've been thinking a lot about a Tom Stoppard quote from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. And I've watched that movie probably 30 times. But I continually think about the ending, where the quote is, ‘There must have been a moment - at the beginning - where we could have said no, but somehow we missed it.”
Jeff said: “I would say we are past the moment where we could say no. We've lost a lot, but we’re not doomed. We can't say no, because it's already here. But we can go through it, and we can make something good.”
Jeff reads from ‘The Undertow’:
I'm gonna end with this passage from ‘The Good Fight Is the One You Lose.’ In other words, don't only pick the ones you can win when we're struggling against fascism.
If you have ever wondered what the Left once was, in America, the old Left that organized American labor gave rise to the black revolt that would grow into black power and fought fascists in Spain in 1936. And in Peekskill in 1949…
Listen to Darling Corey as The Weavers sang it in 1955. It's a ghost, a memory even then, but still, it's more thrilling than anything that played on the radio that year. A punk battle hymn for four voices. Pete Seeger tears it open with a single note hit hard over and over, spitting bullets out of his long-necked banjo, usually the happiest-sounding set of strings in the world. But Pete was mad and proud and bitter, playing for the fallen and the falling. Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, two-thirds gone now, dying of Huntington's disease in Brooklyn, and the Weavers themselves. It was a new sound for Pete, Woody's sound. Not the jokes, but the anger.
The difference between Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie could be seen on their instruments. In a neat circle bordering his banjo, Pete wrote: ‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.’ Across the hips of his guitar, Woody scrawled, ‘This machine kills fascists.’
I’ll give you all a moment…
A few seconds…
To breathe in his words….
It’s worth noting that history never ends - as Timothy Synder taught us - it’s worth noting that history connects and repeats, and echoes, and the tides take us back in time - to when Woody Guthrie wrote a song about Old Man Trump, a 1954 folk song about Fred Trump’s racist housing practices and discriminatory rental policies.
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
He stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed
That color line
Here at his Beach Haven family project
History is echoing again, demanding our attention, begging us to listen. We’ve had our flirtation with the fascist aesthetic. Let’s move on.
Ruth told me a few years back that once a country gets a thirst for fascism, it’s hard to reverse course. We did. We voted Old Man Trump out. Moving on.
‘This machine kills fascists.’
A guitar, a typewriter, a notebook.
Four years ago, I wrote this poem on Twitter:
bury me in the future,
when the inelegance
of these times,
a bitter memory fades.
We were living in part two of the Trumpocene - the ugly conspiracy gospel.
We know better now. I have told you many times on these pages that it would be the poets, the historians, the artists, the filmmakers, the musicians, the independent investigative journalists and activists, who would save us.
Let the brave poetry of Jeff Sharlet bring us one step closer to that salvation.
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