A woman you don’t know from the history department steps behind you in the line at the University’s Starbucks. You both order a caramel macchiato. The coincidence does not enkindle mutual senses of understanding or initiate productive dialogue. It is not the beginning of anything. She promptly divulges that the nearly intractable, foul mood she has found herself in is more of a chronicle than an affective state. It has a genealogy. She tells you her past prefigures her place in her institution, which is your institution. You think this may be true in the way a curse prefigures all the evil shit that happens to Macbeth or Oedipus or Mohamed. How her mother, her father, her sister, and apparently both grandmothers on one side of the family all attended such and such college. Apropos she wanted her son to also matriculate there. However, because some Navy recruiter commenced lying to him about the college debt crisis, and outmoded fallacies of patriotism and the merits of being part of something greater than oneself, or national service, or something—she’s unsure of the exact pack of lies these baby killers were using to corrupt the youth these days. However she is certain that it is because of all this that her son is presently enrolled at Annapolis instead.
You are not sure if you are meant to apologize for this failure of the progressive agenda or its apparent failure to instill the value of proper virtue signaling in her son. Instead, you ask if he seems happy. The fact she says that it seems so doesn’t seem to mitigate her abiding furor. Nor does the fact that he has begun to-- for the first time in his life-- take his academics seriously, has stopped smoking dope, and has carried a 4.0 GPA through his first 2 years. This conversation, in effect, ends all voluntary communication between both of you for the remainder of your stay at said university.
A professor begins one of your classes with a lengthy indictment excoriating the right wing crypto-fascist bullshit underlying America’s ongoing battle between “legal” and “moral” obligations. While you couldn’t agree more with the sentient-- hell, you even have a copy of Solzhenitsyn in your backpack-- he decides to elucidate his argument, by using the case of waterboarding as the example par excellence. By this, he explains to you, he means that the administration consulted some old, white, international rights lawyer at UC Berkeley’s School of Law, a so called expert in the field, and based on his recommendation and analysis the administration decided that waterboarding-- the most horrific, dehumanizing, violence humanity has thus far invented to torment and punish his fellow man, was inflicted on innocents who committed no crime besides looking different than the monsters performing such acts-- did not violate the Geneva convention or any other international prohibition or moratorium.
You ask if he has ever been waterboarded, and he looks offended. Here we go, you think. Generally, people form friendships based on mutual interests and, for the most part, these relationships require compatible personalities. However, sometimes, our historical selves (our selves taken together with all the experience they have accumulated moving through the world) are forced into a relationship by a specific situation—such as being registered for a graduate seminar. In such a scenario, not only is this relationship necessary, but a power structure assigns hierarchical positions to these selves as a byproduct, if not a deliberate result of the arrangement. His civilian Ivy league self and your marine self, or your community college self and his Ivy league self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning at the same piece of intellectual terrain.
Your question is in the tone better reserved for discussions conducted face-to-face and in seconds that wipe the affable smiles right from your mouths you announce you have been waterboarded on seven separate occasions. Moreover, you add, you have conducted the waterboarding of 68 individuals, the majority of them enemy combatants responsible for the murder of people you knew by name and that each of those 68 was in perfect health when you had finished the task and that the label of torture had better be reserved for those actions conducted with Black and Decker drills, kneecaps, shinbones, electrodes, car batteries, pubic bones, pelvises, and needle nose pliers. Instantaneously, your selves seem fragile and tenuous. The mutual respect supposedly fostered by these collegial sorts of relationships is supposed to save both of you from these kinds of situational disagreements but the whole structure of propriety crumbles. The silence that follows doubles down, extends his indictment. And you know what it means all too well.
Cover image of the United States flag by Jnn13, found here.