Exile in the Digital Age

Summer 2016 was characterized, for me, for many, as one of white hot rage and practical terror. It was a confluence of horror, amplified somehow beyond appropriate proportion and yet simultaneously minimized. In that moment, I could finally feel the urgency that had led others had taken up arms – both in order to commit violence and also out of self-defense. I spent the summer in France, and, even from across the ocean, the danger felt ever-present. The murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile provoked retaliatory attacks on the police, and I found myself questioning whether I could really fault those who felt it necessary to commit violence against the institution which has been used, over and over again, to enforce systemic racism in America.

If I, a white man with an advanced degree who was not even presently in the United States, could feel the panic, urgency and desperation of the situation in America, then what must it feel like to inhabit a black body in this time of violence and fear?

I had no god to ask for refuge, and so I asked the next best thing, the internet. A black friend recommended James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” and so I sat beneath an oak tree and read it while my daughter played nearby. I stopped and started the book several times, as the description of Baldwin’s own growing awareness of the evils of the world felt so familiar. I learned that Baldwin, too, at various times, left America and lived in France, eventually dying there. And all around me, at least electronically, the controversy swirled. The armchair generals and the sunshine patriots of everyday life rose for a digital muster, and I was among them. Debates raged over how to handle this or that aspect of race in America, and endless discussions of the tragedy of our society folded over on themselves until the ends looked suspiciously like the beginnings.

I considered the dangers of opting out of this digital debate, considered the merits of remaining to serve as a thorn in the side of those who would otherwise absolve themselves of any participation in dismantling the systemic racism that serves perpetually to benefit them in countless ways, quantifiable and otherwise. I felt guilt over not doing more. I felt guilt over saying too much.

What I didn’t feel anything about was the impact that my preoccupation might be having on my daughter. We need not veer too far into the realm of pseudo-science to find proof that children take cues from their parents even in incredibly subtle ways. One evening, I hurried to put my daughter to bed so that I could join the endless debate in one more futile attempt to resolve, once and for all, how to move forward as a society. She was almost two, and had only recently learned that a litany of requests could buy her some time before she had to sleep. Daddy, sing a song. Daddy, I want milk. Daddy, brush my teeth. Another song. Another hug. Another stuffed animal. I think my impatience with these things was not so abnormal, but I certainly think it was influenced by my distraction.

The violence that followed the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling made me think of a course in Civil Disobedience I took in law school. That was where I unlearned what I thought I knew about people like Huey Newton and the Black Panthers. It was the place where we discussed the theoretical underpinnings of nonviolent action and the history of lawbreaking as protest. It was there that I first read Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience,” and it was where I first contemplated the possibility that individual action is no less revolutionary than collective action. Thoreau claims that:

“…if one honest man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America.”

And it was this quote that called out to me from through the years. It reminded me that caring for my daughter, raising her, protecting her from systemic racism to whatever extent possible – up to and including encouraging her to leave the United States and make a life for herself elsewhere – would represent the dismantling of racism in America. Upon realizing this, my decision seemed obvious: I would make my revolution a quiet one. My daughter will be my revolution, and into her I will pour not my fears and fury but my love and tolerance.

Withdrawing from the digital age was easier certainly than Baldwin’s withdrawal from America. I merely clicked the on the confirmation buttons and walked away. For a few days, I instinctively reached for Twitter or Facebook, feeling confused about what to do with my unposted thoughts. These unposted musings itched like phantom limbs, and then ached with the dawning realization that they would never truly exist. As the days wore on, it became easier. After a week, the thought of going back filled me with dread, and the thought even of lurking at the periphery to eavesdrop seemed laughable.

I miss the chatter, and I miss my friends and the kindred spirits I met online – strangers who seem not so strange given our shared ethos. I miss the feeling of not being quite so alone – the everyday reminder that there are others out there thinking about and fighting for goodness and fairness. But I am not alone, and even if I were, I would be no less revolutionary.

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