Years ago, when I was fresh out of grad school and deep in debt, I took a job in a cavernous, red-brick building alongside Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. Every morning, I’d pull open a thick steel door, pass a security guard, and then punch a clock. Down the hall, I found my hard-plastic stool.
All day, people around me shouted at each other until some guy in a cheap white shirt stood in the center of the room, hiked up his belt buckle, and threatened to fire somebody.
I didn’t care if that man in the white shirt was really going to fire me (or anybody else for that matter) because even though I was deep in debt and living off of pasta and pizza, I only wanted to work at that warehouse for a short time. I wanted to work there long enough to be able to tell a story. The very story I’m telling you now.
Those of us who are good Democrats are even worse, because we should have known better. We allowed our party to grow callow in the face of war because we didn’t have any faith in the power of our own beliefs.
Welcome to the Machine
My job was to read funeral cards. The boss would hand me a stack of them, maybe fifty or sixty. On the front of these cards were preprinted, sticky-sweet words of comfort, with maybe a painting of Jesus or of a sunrise. On the back, were the names of the recently deceased. My job was to make sure the names of the dead were spelled correctly. I’d whip through the stack in about a half an hour and then go over to where the graphic artists were.
All day, the graphic artists would digitally scan the photos of the dead. Then they’d take these digital photos and doctor them in a manner similar to that of an embalmer: If the only picture available of that recently deceased man were his employee ID, the artist would try to color in a suit. If he were missing a few teeth, someone would make him a few. If the subject were wearing a wedding dress, they’d darken it to look more like a somber gown, or anything else more appropriate to a funeral. The artist would then put the doctored picture into a pamphlet that had the order of service. I’d proofread these programs and make corrections to their included obituaries—always written in a manner that was opaquely cliche: [Fill in the blank] was the most wonderful man/woman I’ve ever known ”
Most of the time, the dead people were former elevator operators and telephone repairmen. They were cogs in the mid-century mechanical age machine. I came to realize that I was at the other end of that machine, somewhere toward the intestines, where my job was to help memorialize some old person in the most efficient way possible.
Now and then the tedium was broken up by some horrible death. Some kid ended up in three different Hefty bags and everyone’s spirits were lifted. People smiled. No one shouted that day, because finally, something interesting was going on.
We just can’t care about everything, all of the time, not when our lives are filled with laundry to do, bills to pay, and clean bathrooms to find.
John Mayer is Fatigued
After a while, it’s hard to care about something, when it ceases to be new. We get fatigued—just like I did of death.
We call it “compassion fatigue” and use this term to justify our inattention, until fatigue becomes an end in itself. We’re just so tired of it all and it’s all too confusing.
Singer John Mayer (“the voice of his generation!”—NPR) is making a lot of money right now off that sentiment. His song, “Waiting for the World to Change” says, in effect that it’s all—every bit of it—just too large and too confusing, so let’s just wait for the older generations to die. At that point, we can make it better.
However, every generation lets its succeeding one down. People age; they get filled with illusions and fatuous thoughts and then start off on a stupid war. When they were young and shiny, the Boomers ended Vietnam. They saw themselves as heroes, bought minivans—and then started the war in Iraq. Those of the Greatest Generation, who ended Nazism, were behind the firebombing of villages in Mai Lai.
You can’t wait for the world to change, because you are going to change, yourself. It’s inevitable. You’re going to become just like your parents, the ones who started this obscene war.
he rest of us, meanwhile, are fatigued. This war isn’t a good story, it’s soooo boring. It’s about the death of thousands of would-be telephone repairmen, fodder for some other funeral program proofreader, somewhere.
The media coverage is filled with treacle and the soldiers dying in that war are from small towns we’ve never heard of. We sit on our collective stools and ignore the yelling around us.
Then some guy (a politician, say) comes into the room, hikes up his belt, and threatens to fire someone. We keep our heads down. We hide, because we think we’ll get out of there, somehow. We sit on our “collective stools of do-nothing”
We might cry a bit as some war widow comes on TV. We nod when that woman says that her husband died to protect our freedom—even though really, we don’t understand exactly what that means.
We try to forget that that soldier more than likely joined the Army as part of a jobs program. Or maybe he was conned into signing up. Some recruiter found him skateboarding outside a shopping mall and roped him in just like a terrified heifer.
Those of us who are good Democrats are even worse, because we should have known better. We allowed our party to grow callow in the face of war because we didn’t have any faith in the power of our own beliefs. It’s as simple as that:
We compromised with bastards. And here we are.
Waiting for a Hero
Yesterday, it was the war’s fourth anniversary. Today is the first day of year five. We’ve been at this war longer than we were in the Second World War.
Still we wait.
Your country is only as good as its last war, and those glory days are long gone. Right now, your country is using 100,000 military contractors and mercenaries to do our jobs so that we can keep our hands clean, so that we can shop in relative safety. So we won’t know about what’s going on. So that we can feel like we’ve got the time to wait for the world to change.
At some point, you’ll hear about a threat to that lawn and to those children, and you won’t care if that threat is true or not, because you waited too long for the world to change: You will have become the very thing you’d once hated.
You may feel fatigue. God knows, I do. Nonetheless, our taxes are supporting this; inaction and confusion doesn’t keep you clean.
Your waiting for the world to change just makes it easier for the older guys those motherfuckers, along with the younger ones who’ve been sucked into the system, to continue this war. And then, after you’ve waited, here’s what will happen: you’ll have a nice green lawn. You will also have two of the prettiest children you’ve ever seen. But then, at some point, you’ll hear about a threat to that lawn and to those children, and you won’t care if that threat is true or not, because you waited too long for the world to change:
You will have become the very thing you’d once hated.
At that point, you’ll send in somebody else’s child to die. And for what? For nothing, except for the right to own a riding lawnmower or a Birkin bag.
Because you stand for nothing but the right to own a pristine lawn and shop at the best chain-store boutique your credit cards can handle.
Then a still-younger generation will have a song about how we all just need to wait: we need to wait for you to suck in your last self-satisfied, god-fearing breath.
A sense of powerlessness does not justify inaction. While we all wait, the war goes on. Recruiting officers work their magic in shopping malls, looking for disaffected kids. More mercenaries are hired in the name of freedom, and more people are tortured in the name of some god. The government will need more and more kids blinded by patriotism to flesh out that machine, while meanwhile the rest of us sit on our little stools and wait for the world to change.
Protest now—in a few years, you’ll be too much of a prick to care. In a few years, you’ll have your lawn and your job and whatever’s on TV tonight—everything wil seem much more important. Protest now while you still have a shred of values—the real thing you need to protect.
Meakin Armstrong is a fiction editor of this magazine. He can be reached on Twitter at @meakinarmstrong.