“Well I know this…and anybody who has tried to live knows this… What you say about somebody else, anybody else, reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessities, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you… I’m describing me.”
In 1963, the novelist James Baldwin gave one of the most honest and insightful interviews about American racism. I return to it often because it’s also about something more. It’s about human dignity and the artist’s (lack of) place in American society. When he talks about the word “nigger,” there’s an implication that he’s including anyone who is marginalized, trivialized, and bullied by a culture that is, in the end, acting out its own insecurities and ignorance. America, built on mass extermination and materialism, can do nothing but project its endless need for conformity and subservience because it’s like a big-boned child who has no self-awareness other than knowing it’s stronger than the other kids in the playground. No wonder Baldwin exiled himself to France in 1948 and remained outside the U.S. for most of his life.
Over 60 years later, what should be non-issues as basic as abortion and gay rights often trump endemic problems like homelessness, child poverty, and massive student debt. And the first half-black president is savagely vilified and insulted like no other president in modern U.S. history. 2014 is the new 1948, but with better window dressing, a few advancements to save face, lots of internet porn, and a much, much dumber electorate and Congress. As for the rest of us, we’re mostly ineffectual. And deep down, we all know it. That fact alone–our awareness that we are pretty helpless these days–says it all. Hell, you can go to any bar and overhear sarcastic conversations about how screwed we all are.
Baldwin, like many other artists at the time, was prophetic in getting the hell out of Dodge. And now, I’m getting off this ride too. The amped up 21st-century level of American hypocrisy, hyper individualism, and self-delusion has just really been messing with my mind and soul. It doesn’t mean I won’t be back. Boston is home. But America’s been treating me kind of weird for over two decades now, as though we suddenly don’t know each other. I’m heart-broken. So it’s time we stopped seeing each other for a while.
As a first-generation American born to a lower middle class Armenian family, the ideals of American democracy actually mean something to me because I come from people whose lives have been a long nightmare of forced migration and trauma. It’s usually immigrants who truly believe in American principles of fairness and justice because they have often suffered through the opposite. My family left the bones of their ancestors on the killing fields of Turkey after the Armenian Genocide and stumbled in shock and pain from country to country, eventually escaping from the Soviet Union and moving to the tumult of Boston in the 1960’s. From one system that very obviously didn’t work to another that only works on the surface, while quietly chewing your sense of self until you’re a well-trained workbot who exists to produce, consume, and be consumed.
My grandparents took one bus after another in Boston winters just to go to awful jobs that barely paid enough. My cousins worked 7 days a week so they could own a small, successful business, only to be kicked out 30 years later by criminally high rents without a second thought. My father was a big-hearted, tough mechanic and factory worker at an adhesive plant who often took the late shift just to make a few more bucks an hour. My mother, who was poised to become an established writer in Soviet Armenia, worked for years as a reporter in Washington, D.C. and then as a librarian at the Watertown Public Library. She did okay, overall. But now her meager pension is barely enough. My father? He did what many blue-collar men do. He slumped over one day and died when I was 18. It was as if he suddenly thought, “What the hell have I been doing, and why?”
We’re not supposed to ask each other or ourselves such things. Because to ask serious questions is to illicit complex and difficult answers. Such irritation takes away valuable time from productivity, entertainment, and the constant lure of a success that’s never enough. And any thoughtful and challenging form of dissent gets you pegged as an elitist, Communist, idealist, or even worse, a politically correct bore—all empty, rhetorical labels. Critical thinking detracts from shut-up-blend-in-have-fun-buy-crap-and-be-grateful-for-whatever-crumbs-you-get.
My family, like so many American families, did not work themselves to the bone so that their children would have to bow their heads in gratitude for temp jobs and drown in student debt. They didn’t make a better life for us so that we’d have to grovel and explain ourselves for being artists and intellectuals. The system doesn’t owe us anything? Fine. We don’t owe the system anything either–at least not to a system that mistreats and cons its citizens into going against their own interests. As a bi-cultural writer and musician who loves the States, I’m no longer willing to play along with its deafening cognitive dissonance.
I’m super flawed, but I’m a better person than corporate America wants me to be. And so are you.
It is what it is. A huge swath of the population seems hypnotized by this tautology. I suppose it was what it was during slavery, too. It was what it was when there were no child labor laws and no minimum wage. It was what it was when women couldn’t vote. It was what it was if you were a Jew in Germany, an Armenian in Turkey, and a Tutsi in Rwanda. And I guess it is what it is now when so many Americans are being steamrolled by blatant inequality, corporate malfeasance, and a flaccid government. All while still dying and killing in two wars, one of which was clearly based on lies. It is what is means absolutely nothing other than I can’t really risk my own comfort. Sorry.
Successful people tend to become amnesiacs regarding their own contexts and back stories. They conveniently forget either that their success was simply handed down from wealthy parents, or that they thrived partly due to hard work but mostly due to luck, timing, and help from others, including the government they so often denigrate. It’s too complicated and annoying to think about all the intangible and often random factors that are involved in success. Better to convince yourself that you’re simply more deserving than others; otherwise how would you sleep at night?
The current form of American capitalism–whose more sane and ethical version actually worked pretty well and peaked in the late 1950’s and early 60’s–is often nothing but a mechanism for daily mental and spiritual violence against anyone who is not already wealthy, which is pretty much all of us. No wonder many recent studies claim that approximately 70 percent of doctor visits are for stress-related issues. In the richest, most bountiful country on earth? I’m sorry, boys and girls, it can’t be that almost all of us are in need of happy pills. We are not all somehow weak, lazy, and crazy. The system itself has become unhinged, not us. We’re just collateral damage.
You’d think I would have visited Armenia before. After all, I’ve been lucky to have traveled widely and lived in other countries. And I was raised so bi-culturally that many of my Armenian friends who are immigrants often forget I was born in Cambridge, Mass., and most of my American friends are surprised when they overhear me answer my phone in Armenian. But for some reason I felt no pull to visit. On the contrary, I felt repelled. Perhaps I saw my family’s and other Armenians’ dysfunctions as a red flag and assumed the source must be this mythologized country they never stop talking about. Just as I loathe the jingoistic faux patriotism in America, I equally loathe such sentiments regarding Armenia or any other country.
But at the same time that I realized my America had never really been mine, I began to sense that perhaps Armenia had been patiently waiting all along. I noticed that, as Baldwin points out, whatever I thought about Armenia was really about my own hang-ups. However clumsily I described it to myself, I was actually describing my own insecurities—messed up, faltering, hopeless, bleak, too focused on the past. Over time, as I worked hard to untangle the nests cluttering my mind, Armenia began to reveal itself simply for what it is: a possibility.
A tiny, landlocked country in the Caucasus, present-day Armenia has stunning landscapes dotted by pagan sites and dozens of ancient monasteries and churches. It was the first Christian nation and an important part of the Silk Road. Now it’s a former Soviet Republic with a mostly stable government, minus the one shooting in the parliament and various corrupt officials. For sure, it has its issues. Actually, that’s kind of the point. Armenia is just another kind-of-messed-up country trying to do its best, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. It doesn’t claim to be the arbiter of global justice, human rights, and equal opportunity.
And I’m moving there in four weeks.
I know there is no perfect place. And I know that America is as wonderful as it is problematic. And I know I’ll miss it. It’s home, and it’s full of so many kind, good people. But that is what’s maddening. The hapless middle class is being systematically dismantled by a government that really only serves Wall Street, corporations, and lobbyists. We get angry. We sign petitions. Sometimes we gather in parks and yell things. We post articles to Facebook and Twitter from Starbucks. Then we go about our business. That’s just not who I want to be anymore.
This is not to say Armenia is some kind of paradise or answer. It sure as hell isn’t. But at least for now, there’s an actual bohemian community there that thrives, small as it might be. Remember bohemians? I don’t mean rich people who like slumming it. I mean people who are just naturally unconventional, somehow not desperate to conform, and who live outside the spirit-crushing daily grind. It’s not some romantic notion of Joyce in Paris or Rimbaud in Africa, and it’s not the played out, contrived white kids in Brooklyn. It’s just people who struggle, but struggle artfully, with verve, and refuse as much as possible to become debris in the flood of globalization. People who live Baldwin’s words: “I am not the victim here. I know one thing from another. I know that I was born, am gonna suffer, and gonna die. And the only way that you can get through life is to know the worst things about it. I know that a person is more important than anything else. Anything else.”
So, just as my anti-fascist grandfather left the refugee camps of Syria after the Armenian Genocide and went to the muddy, wolf-infested streets of Yerevan with hopes of a Soviet Armenian ideal, I’m headed to the cafe-lined, paradoxical streets of modern Yerevan. My grandfather was duped by Stalin. Then he was duped by Uncle Sam. If I’m going to be duped, I’d rather be duped with my dignity intact, working on my art in a small, modest country most people have never heard of, but whose intensely dynamic and brilliant cultural history long precedes Europe, Turkey, and my America.
I say my because you never forget your first love, as much as she might forget you.
It was what it was. Now it’s time for it to be something else.