I'm Watching Myself

Mark Bauerlein

On October 21, 1967, fifty thousand anti-Vietnam War protestors marched from the Lincoln Memorial across the bridge to Arlington, then south to the Pentagon. Dr. Spock was there, and so were poets Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell, critic Dwight Macdonald, and activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, who promised to anchor a human ring around the building and levitate it through a joint effort of moral earnestness and mental concentration. Novelist Norman Mailer was there, too, and he recorded the event in one of the great books of the sixties, The Armies of the Night, published in 1968.

Mailer’s account of the march is a fascinating study not only for historical reasons. It’s an experiment in narration, as the subtitle History as a Novel, the Novel as History suggests. Alfred Kazin wrote in his review of the book in the May 5, 1968, New York Times that “only a born novelist could have written a piece of history so intelligent, mischievous, penetrating and alive, so vivid with crowds, the great stage of American democracy, the Washington streets and bridges, the Lincoln Memorial, the women, students, hippies, Negroes…”1

The reportage is crisp. Speeches were delivered, people got arrested, soldiers knocked some heads. But Mailer the novelist adds another layer to the tale. Though he speaks of himself in the third person, Mailer pauses again and again to explore, ponder, question, analyze, and re-experience…Mailer. The protest has a purpose: to embarrass and hound the military state, forcing it to endure a citizens’ revolt or to shut it down while the press watches and broadcasts. Mailer joins them, but simultaneously occupies another level, a personal, experiential one that asks while the action unfolds, “What am I feeling right now? Why am I doing this? How do I come off to others? What’s my response to that angry young marcher and that resolute cop?”

In his hands, this inward examination of Mailer’s—there is even a documentary film crew following him around—becomes an illuminating, intriguing window onto the confusions and zeal of that time and place. It makes for darn good literature. It has another attraction, too, namely, its repeatability. Readers may not have the literary talent to write history as a personal/psychological novel, but they can certainly adopt inward examination as a personal style. Anyone can do it. It happens all the time on social media, photos and tweets and postings sent in medias res. And how pleasing it is to engage in a social/moral protest and make yourself, your mind and spirit, your moods and impressions, a central character of the action.

The march took place a half-century ago, but Mailer’s approach to it is a common feature of large and small campus protests in the present time. Indeed, from where I stand in a humanities department at a research university that has seen its share of protests and demands in recent years, one of the most daunting elements of the campus Left isn’t the radical politics or in-your-face tactics that have so intimidated faculty and administrators. It is, precisely, this personal reflexivity that goes with the politicking. I don’t mean the activists’ personal investment in the disputes on the table. That’s to be expected. People who denounce various American “-isms” and “-phobias” naturally draw on their own experience and hold it up as proof of national conditions. Nor do I mean the old personal-is-political axiom, which holds that private affairs such as the family structure are political formations disguised as natural dispositions. That assumption is just as strong as ever, especially among feminists, but it doesn’t bear upon the particular personal disposition that is expressed during and through the actions themselves. Here, in the Mailer mode, we see an emphasis on the experience, the self-consciousness of protesting in the midst of the act itself. It is a more contained and less intellectual and political element in left-wing activism, more focused upon an individual and nothing more. The personal angle happens only while the events are in process. It is a behavior, not a position; a motive, not a belief.

The simplest, most benign version of it is the common exhortation to “make your voice heard.” This sounds like a modest ambition. The goal it sets is not political success—a protest, for instance, that leads a university to insert a diversity course into the general education requirements. The very act of demanding is an end in itself. Whether it works or not comes second to the sheer pleasure/exhilaration/experience of doing it. Success turns inward. “Well, we may not have gotten what we wanted, but we marched and spoke out and made sure the authorities heard us.”

It’s a therapeutic conception of activism, a social version of the “talking cure,” as one of Freud’s patients termed his method of having people talk, just talk, knowing that some relief would soon follow. You might fail to accomplish anything concrete, but at least you make your voice heard. You experience the pleasure of talking back, of speaking truth to power. Not to speak out amounts to repressing yourself, a personal/psychological crime piled onto the social/moral crime that angered you in the first place. In raising your voice, at least one hurdle is overcome. The protestors can reflect upon the bare experience of protesting and find it good, and good for themselves, too. To have stayed at home, to have given in to despair, is to have let the other side win the first battle, and hence the war.

That’s the other, apolitical ingredient of so much of what we’ve seen in the way of progressive activism in recent times. People born before 1970 remember the slogan “SILENCE = DEATH.” It was the motto for gay liberation in the 1970s and for AIDS awareness in the 1980s, and it nicely illustrates the conversion of the political into the personal. What is normally but the first step in a protest movement—that is, not to stay silent—develops into a substantive conflict/action in itself. The seventies formula raises those two options, silence or speaking, to life or death stakes, literally.

Examples of this intensified, aggrandized personal challenge are easy to find. They flow through the education press every week. One that just passed my desk took place at the University of Michigan in late September last year. Responding to the Donald Trump vs. the NFL controversy, Dana Greene, a graduate student in public health, decided to “take a knee” in the university’s courtyard for twenty-four hours. Around the “M” logo planted in the concrete he wrote “BLACK LIVES MATTER,” laid out a water bottle and sandwiches, and began his vigil. Though the point was to object to racism at Michigan and across the country, it was a silent and solemn exercise, not a raucous expression of outrage.2

But the humble and other-oriented presentation wasn’t all. Before he set up, Mr. Greene posted a letter to the university president entitled “Why I Kneel.” (The news story cited in footnote 2 reprints this letter in full.) It runs for three paragraphs consisting of eighteen sentences. In seventeen of those sentences, the grammatical subject is “I.” Overall, the letter has twenty-five “I” references. Each one announces a fact about the protestor:

I have attended the University of Michigan for five years. I have crossed the fountain in Ingalls Mall….I’ve walked the halls....I’ve mopped the floors....I’ve marched....I am a black man....

…I have watched as anti-Muslim, anti-Black, anti-Latinx, and anti-immigrant rhetoric has raced across our campus and across our country....I had become numb....I had convinced myself....

…I will kneel in the Diag....I am kneeling because....I am kneeling because I am tired of doing nothing.3

The self-consciousness is acute. This protest, we must recognize, finalizes a personal journey Mr. Greene has made, an awakening to injustice. When he kneels (alternating knees every fifteen minutes), we shall witness it as his statement, a personal outcry.

On his Facebook page appeared a photograph of Mr. Greene that the New York Post reproduced.4 His eyes are closed, his hands crossed at the wrist, his countenance somber. He looks worn out. When we gaze at him, we think of the individual struggle first, not the social injustice. The one is supposed to lead to the other, yes, but Greene’s letter and his dramaturgy make it hard to transcend him. The “I” factor is too dynamic to be superseded. Martin Luther King Jr. had the genius to convert private conviction and pain into a national purpose. Protests such as this one stick to the personal level.

If you don’t regard this inner drama as a significant matter, you can’t help but ask: What’s the point of making the effort to protest a policy or alter attitudes, to become a change agent, if you turn out to have no agency? The thing that roused you in the first place, a sexist fraternity or homophobic column in the newspaper or some systemic injustice, remains firm. When you measure protest by its objective consequences, you look beyond the experience itself. The event is political, not personal. You overlook the other contest that makes this make-your-voice-heard mandate so meaningful, the personal contest of my protest vs. my silence. But current protestors want to spotlight it.

Now, I know many people who would judge this personal theater a silly and vain conception. It contains too much self-congratulation and virtue-signaling for them to credit it as moral conviction or authentic reform. They aren’t interested in feel-good gestures. They care about results, not intentions; political change, not private satisfaction. Saul Alinsky would have scorned this make-your-voice-heard injunction unless it was understood as an object-oriented tactic, not a self-satisfaction. But Alinsky also recognized an effective tactic when he saw it, and this one is powerful.

For one has to admit that the pointlessness of this personalization of protest—or, rather, the point of expressing yourself for the purpose of expressing yourself—can be empowering for the protestors and baffling to the authorities. If you are an administrator and a bunch of students invade your office and seem to be more interested in enacting their protest than in pressing for specific policy changes, you have no response to make. “We are here to voice our pain,” they say. “We declare how much racism we experience every day on this campus. You must listen!” What else can the administrator do but nod? It’s impossible for the powers to enter into the psychodrama of their adversaries. They need specifics and proposals, not anguish and anger. But the protestors wish to remain at the emotional base, perhaps sensing that when they issue their list of demands, another, impersonal process will take over. Angry students in person would give way to angry words on a document, which have far less impact and, as we saw with the pileup of List of Demands on some eighty prominent campuses in 2015, often collapse into absurdity (for instance, demanding that course evaluation forms include questions about a teacher’s microaggressions).

Self-oriented protests always run that risk. Too absorbed in personal theatrics, they start to look narcissistic, not real. When the national news showed Evergreen State students howling execrations at the hapless president, few viewers had any sympathy for them. The kids sounded like brats throwing a tantrum. Whatever personal struggles they had undergone in their undergraduate careers, the students lost all credibility when they appeared to enjoy their dissidence a bit too much. They talked at length about themselves, but with no self-awareness, much less self-criticism.

This is where Mailer’s accomplishment comes in. Every personal style needs compelling role models. Lesser versions of them turn people off, especially in this case when they so quickly lapse into self-absorption. Mailer’s account is so incisive and observant, and also self-mocking and self-effacing, that it stands the test of time and exemplifies and justifies (seemingly) the translation of political into personal. He is a fair illustration of why Socrates booted poets out of the republic.

Take, for instance, one moment in Mailer’s adventure when he, Macdonald, and Lowell find a spot in the area around the Pentagon where a rope warns people from crossing and MPs stand ten yards behind it. A few minutes earlier, Mailer had urged them, “[L]et’s get arrested now,” and immediately notes, “Stating the desire created it, and put a ligature across the rent in his nerve.”5 At this point, the three writers pause at the rope as if it marked a fateful threshold, the passage from safe heckling to full confrontation.

With a “Let’s go,” Mailer steps over it, but doesn’t plunge ahead in the narrative to describe the next action. Instead, we get a phenomenological reflection in the third person:

It was as if the air had changed, or light had altered; he felt immediately much more alive—yes, bathed in air—and yet disembodied from himself, as if indeed he were watching himself in a film where this action was taking place. He could feel the eyes of the people behind the rope watching him, could feel the intensity of their existence as spectators. And as he walked forward, he and the MP looked at one another with the naked stricken lucidity which comes when absolute strangers are for the moment absolutely locked together.6

At this moment, the meaning of the Pentagon dissipates. The Vietnam War is a distant background. Only the lived reality matters, the rope and the air, the spectators, the soldier who faces him, and, of course, Mailer’s own sense of himself right then and there. The description rises above Mailer’s experience alone, however. It becomes a human drama easily generalizable by anyone who has experienced a threatening confrontation before. We weren’t at the Pentagon that day, but we have found ourselves in opposition to state authorities before and felt nervous and uncertain. Mailer’s “watching himself,” ironically, enables us to share in his experience, not just hear about it. If we have crossed a taboo demarcation before, we have felt the world shift in just this way (but without articulating it as well as Mailer does here). The language works for him and for us, the term “naked stricken lucidity,” for instance, nicely marking his encounter with the MP and our memory of the time when a security guard caught us in a forbidden area and we saw ourselves in all our bare inexcusability.

We have nothing so penetrating and inquisitive, and so easily shared, in the campus protests of today. The “social justice” warriors of the twenty-first century follow Mailer in highlighting their past and present experiences, but they stop there. They have no artist’s eye for the occasion and no critical sense of themselves. The personal style of the sixties has survived, but not the depths and complications and ironies of its best practitioners. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is the most celebrated off-campus example of the personal/political presentation, but that heated and sorrowful memoir contains so much un-self-consciousness that by the time its fiftieth anniversary arrives, nobody will remember it.

This is one legacy of 1968: narcissism without insight, pseudo-politics and autobiographical theater, performativity. When you read the lists of demands and protesting commentaries in the student newspapers, and when you hear the protestors speak, you get one platitudinous plea and clichéd complaint after another.7 No imagination, no singularity. These individual outcries are anything but individual. It’s hard to decide which is worse, the relentless turn to personal feeling or the numbingly uniform expression of it.

The sixties produced the Me Generation; the do-your-own-thing command gave us a “herd of independent minds.”8 And now we have a millennial cohort that believes “I’m offended” sufficiently answers a disagreeable though well-supported opinion. Their offense is never up for examination, only the external cause of it. And sometimes that is us.

Yes, we stand accused, and the protestors are the accusers. They have no self-reflection, only self-righteousness. Here are black students at Pomona College, in a letter to President David Oxtoby, objecting to a visit by Heather Mac Donald:

We, Black students, exist with a myriad of different identities. We are queer, trans, differently-abled, poor/low-income, undocumented, Muslim, first-generation and/or immigrant, and positioned in different spaces across Africa and the African diaspora.9

This kind of identification is the opposite of the analytical eye Mailer casts upon himself. It serves only to authorize the students, not illuminate them. But that’s all they want. Success results when the students can identify their adversaries: “Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist, a warhawk, a transphobe, a queerphobe, a classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live.”10

This is what happens when indignation loses the restraints of self-awareness. It goes over-the-top and loses credibility. And we can attribute that heedlessness to a specific cause. These students have never sat in a classroom and heard a conservative viewpoint receive a fair hearing. Mailer occupied a world that admitted the voices of Philip Rieff, William F. Buckley, and others of varying rightist opinions. It made him less naïve about his left-wing gestures. Today’s protestors needn’t worry. Those complications are gone. They savor the joys of absolute moral confidence, no matter how insufferable it makes them. Don’t blame them—blame their teachers.

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