We Did Start The Fire

There’s a fire burning underground in St. Louis County.

This is not a metaphor. There is, quite literally, a rolling trash fire that’s been burning there since at least 2010. We’re hearing about it now because someone at radio KMOX got a hold of the county government’s evacuation plans, in case this fire advances another 1000 feet into the neighboring toxic waste dump. Yuppers. It’s actually possible that a 5-year-old, continuously burning trash fire might ignite a dump that is not only an EPA superfund sight, not only contains illegally dumped toxic chemicals from the 70’s, but even has remnants of nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project in the 40’s.

The landfill that’s been burning all this time (Brighton), and the toxic waste dump (West Lake), are both owned by the same company – Republic Services. Here’s the crazy part – and this is a straight quote from the AP article:

For years, the most immediate concern has been an odor created by the smoldering. Republic Services is spending millions of dollars to ease or eliminate the smell by removing concrete pipes that allowed the odor to escape and installing plastic caps over parts of the landfill.

Everyone says there’s nothing much that can be done about this kind of thing. It’s underground, it’s not dangerous (or it wasn’t until it got close to a toxic waste dump, which, if ignited, will likely make any air breathed in the area, well, toxic), it’s just inconvenient, and it’s happening in a part of the country without much money. Most of these fires happen in empty or abandoned mines. We all know how important the folks who live in mining towns are to the mine owners once the mines have been tapped out. And, of course, Republic Services is being sued by the county for violating environmental laws, which has done nothing whatsoever, of course – the suit was launched in 2013, but they still haven’t actually gotten into court.

When I lead by saying “this is not a metaphor,” I was lying. Any writer worth his salt would want to exploit this sucker to tell a tale. (There’s also a whole play for someone to write here – or maybe the play is about Centralia, PA, where a similar fire ignited in 1962 and utterly destroyed that community – the 2013 Census reports a population of ten in Centralia.)

But, as a writer, which crisis do I hold this up against – there are just so many options! Police/African American relations, economic iniquity, frustration with our elected leaders, our elected leaders frustration with their own inability to actually achieve anything… the options are legion. Since today’s Columbus Day here in the States, why not talk about entitlement? White, male entitlement?

I asked my brother, who is a lifelong computer geek, about 4Chan the other day. He’s been on it since it was a little room in which people who posted code could talk about how to use the code, whether it was ok to use the code, and other morality surrounding code. Over the years, the little room grew, and subdivided, and grew some more, until it became a bunch of big rooms, each filled with collections of deeply like-minded individuals. Because most of them have something in common (being computer folk) and because the Internet allows us to create purely self-reinforcing communities, their conversations, regardless of the topic, tend to be fairly circular, and empowering. This is not unique to 4Chan – all of us who are active on social media, read blogs, or follow computer-delivered news tailor our input to suit ourselves. I’d be surprised (and, actually, quite pleased) if I discovered any white supremacists or serious tea-party members in my Facebook feed.

The horrible thing that’s happening in one channel on 4Chan is that a whole lot of like-minded, hyper entitled young men have found each other, and started encouraging each other’s entitlement. They call themselves “The Beta Revolution,” and they are one of America’s underground fires. Their rage started from the garbage notion that, because they are who they are (mostly white men), they deserve to certain privileges. They deserve lovers, whether or not those lovers are interested. They deserve a job that they like and that pays them well. They deserve the life they want to lead, regardless of how that impacts those around them.

Christopher Columbus was a representative of a similar worldview. He saw the Taino people and the Americas in general as a means to providing a better life for him and his people, regardless of the needs of anyone else.

The Betas see guns, roofies, and rape threats as means to provide them with what they want. Their threats seem to be unprosecutable online, which leaves them free to build up enough momentum to move out of the chat rooms and into society, where some of them chose to kill as many people as they can who they imagine stand between them and their desires. They call themselves Betas because they think that, once they rid the world of the Alpha males, they will win all of the accolades, women, and comforts they feel to be their birthright.

There are lots of reasons they have these feelings. Contemporary Western culture has a terrible track record when it comes to representing women as complete, self-determined humans with the right to make choices about their lives and partners based on free will. Our entertainment media (games, movies, books, cartoons) are saturated with images of men becoming heroes through acts of massive violence. And the American Dream of advancing in society through merit and hard work has proven to be disappointing, as we watch the options for the working class to succeed diminish with each subsequent generation.  They’re getting fairly clear messages from our culture that they’re not wrong.

My brother tells me that lots of these guys are proficient coders who either can’t find, or refuse to work at, real jobs. They’ll spend 300 hours figuring out how to trick extra lives out of an X-Box game, but can’t motivate themselves to put in 40 hours a week making health-care software more efficient, or working on an algorithm to track sweater sales. And who can blame them? How boring is that stuff? We are taught to pursue our dreams. We (white middle class boys) are often told, “Work hard enough, and you can be ANYTHING you want to be.” And then life comes along and kicks us in the nuts. Because it doesn’t work that way. Good intentions and hard work do not automatically translate into getting us to anything we want. There is no code to crack that will make women like you – you actually have to be likable, and interested in them. And even, then, it’s no guarantee – human beings aren’t like that. I’ve worked hard my whole life, and I can say that I’ve succeeded. But my roof leaks, my bank account is often so empty it echoes, and I started going bald at 27. That’s life. I work with what I’ve got, try hard to get gigs that excite me, enjoy the privileges I have, love my family, and do my best to enjoy my time. Because I know I’m not entitled to more.

And today, I have to stop and think that much of this goes back to the way Europeans came to the Americas. We came as conquerors, we took what we wanted, and it worked. I believe that this approach has been ingrained into the majority culture in the United States.

The problem is, that approach only works when we can pretend that the other humans involved don’t have equal value, or equal rights. And most of us have evolved beyond that pretense. Christopher Columbus lit a fire built from an outdated notion – a notion that most of us understand is trash. But if we don’t put it out for once and for all, life here in America is just going to keep getting more and more toxic.

(original AP article about the trash fire: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/10/08/world/st-louis-girds-catastrophic-event-underground-fire-burning-since-10-get-near-cold-war-nuke-waste-cache/#.VhruvxNViko)

3 thoughts on “We Did Start The Fire”

  1. At my school, “thugs” were respected.

    This was in the 2000’s decade.

    Problem is, every single boy OTHER THAN ME considered themself a “thug”.

    Being a “thug” was, in their words, about “protecting women, not taking any crap from other men” all male leadership roles, really.

    In spite of what they CLAIMED to represent, they were actually extremely abusive.
    I wish you could have seen.
    Whenever I criticize “thug” culture I am now called a “racist”.

    Oh yeah and PS I got jumped 6 times by “thugs”. (20% of them were W-H-I-T-E as snow so STFU with your “racist white guy” accusations). “But thug is a dog whistle word for black people” UM I USE THE WORD “THUG” BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT THEY CALL THEMSELF. But thanks for trying to make me resent black people by using them as a human shield against criticism of gang culture. MAN I hate middle class leftists.

    (I’m a low income, inner city resident. I am a socialist and I like to think I’m a “rebel” just like those gang members are, but I will never be seen as a “rebel”. I will always be seen as “privileged” in a society where “priviledged” men are seen as weak and soft and rebels are seen as tough and manly.)

    Noone ever tells me that inner-city gang members are “entitled” or compares them to Christopher Columbus.

    In SPITE of the fact that they PHYSICALLY ATTACKED ME.

    PS, the fact that they WERE ABLE to physically attack me proves that they have more PRIVILEGE than I do. They had friends in the neighborhood, I was all alone there. Also, they fit into “thug” culture and I didn’t (which was the dominant culture OF the neighborhood I lived in), which was also a privilege.

    Thug privilege is stronger than white privilege. Thugs of all colors DOMINATED and emasculated* my white a** and made it CLEAR to me that I was their b***h while living in that neighborhood. And pretty much 100% of adolescent males in that neighborhood took after some form of “thug” culture, and as such, they were assumedly higher-up than me in status.

    *(“Emasculating” certain males individually is not the same thing as destroying societal male privilege. In fact, its reinforcing it.)

    I wish upper middle class liberals could care when “thugs” kill THOUSANDS of low income people every year. But they only care when nerdy white guys shoot up schools or churches and the victims of thug culture are met with smirks and giggles and “thug culture doesn’t exist” and “You must get all your opinions about inner city life from Fox News”.

    Don’t believe me? Pretend to be one of us gang violence victims (I give you permission to do this as a gang violence survivor myself…)…make up a story about a lifetime of bullying from gangs, and IMMEDIATELY you will be surrounded by people who claim to defend “social justice”, calling you a “racist”, telling you “gang violence is a reaction to racism” and demanding that you “respect” gang members, etc.


    1. Hey, John –

      Thanks for the response – I’m glad you came across this blog post. As the writer, I’m also the moderator, and I’m happy to approve your note, because I think you’ve got thoughts and experiences worth reading, considering and discussing.

      The main purpose of this post was not to suggest that, somehow, gang members, alpha males in general, or African Americans in particular can’t be bad guys – not at all. What I’m condemning here is the idea that any person is owed a girlfriend/wife/partner/lover. The notion of entitlement is absolutely cross cultural – the boys you grew up with, who were embracing the idea of thug culture, were playing into a macho version of it, and the boys/young men pursuing their Beta Revolution are just embracing a different version of it. It’s all the same delusion. Columbus (who was, let us not forget, from Spain, so – on the arbitrary spectrum of race that we seem to embrace these days, would be considered “Hispanic”) had one form of entitlement – the kind with a lot of swagger. You’d have to be an alpha male to convince the ruler of your country that you should be entrusted with the best technology of the time, plus a whole crew of sailors with swords. And you could certainly brand him a thug, given the way he put his foot onto the necks of the Taino people.

      What’s sad is that the Betas are chasing the same idea – just from another direction. After years of being tormented as nerds/geeks/dorks/wimps, they’ve internalized the very same culture of entitlement. The lesson they’ve taken from their beatings is not “taking what you want at the expense of others is wrong” – the lesson they’ve learned is “find a way to take what YOU want from someone else, and if you can’t get it, extract the ultimate price – their lives.” This is the horror of the mass shootings we’re experiencing. I’m not a therapist, but I’d be willing to hazard a guess that it’s not dissimilar to the phenomenon of child abuse – those who are subjected to violence as children are multiple times more likely to subject their own children to violence. It’s a terrible, mad cycle, and only active effort and thought can break it. Sadly, from what I’ve been learning, the Beta folks on 4-Chan aren’t interested in healing – they’re interested in perpetuating the cycle of violence and revenge.

      On a more personal note, I’m immensely sorry your childhood and teenage experiences were so horrific; you certainly don’t need me (or anyone else) to validate that horror. Lots of folks on the internet respond rapidly, and without a lot of thought – I, too, would feel mistreated if, when talking about my victimization, I was told it wasn’t real or I didn’t deserve to be angry. While it is absolutely the case that the circumstances driving gang violence are tied to racism and institutionalized poverty (as a socialist, you must be aware of the ongoing damage that our ever-growing economic divide is doing), that doesn’t diminish how wrong it is when gang members do what they do to their own communities. You’re being subjected to a false equation – you’re being told that, because the circumstances leading to gangs are out of the control of the gang members’ individual lives, the gang members are not responsible for their own behavior. And that’s not fair – not to you, or any victims of gang violence. The gangs are the result of a messed up culture plus the drug wars of the 80’s – but that doesn’t let anyone off the hook for their behavior within that messed up culture. Coming out of every community plagued by gang violence are heroes as well as villains – folks who stay and try and heal the community, and folks who get out and try to change it from the outside. Everyone makes choices for themselves. Truly, it is the weak minded and spirited who give in to the pressure to become a killer and a taker.

      My only hope is that, through active, thoughtful conversation, we can realize the true power of those who do not chose the path of violence, rape, and other modes of unwilling seduction. Which is damned hard. I mean – it’s built into our culture from the word go. I was talking about it with my kid just tonight. We were talking about “The Sandlot” – you know the movie? Generally, a super sweet, redeeming kid’s movie. But, at one moment, Squints (who is a pretty stereotypical nerd) pretends to drown so that he can get mouth-to-mouth from the beautiful lifeguard on whom he has an unrequited crush. (She’s clearly about 5 years older than him, and anything sexual between them would just be wrong, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.) I was saying that it’s pretty cruddy behavior to fool someone into doing something they would never willingly do. She acts generously – to save his life – and is punished for it by having to kiss a boy who doesn’t interest her. And the worst part is, in the movie, after banning him from the pool, there’s a shot where she gives him a kind of lingering glance. Brrrr – super creepy. A pre-pubescent boy tricks a very pubescent young woman into kissing him, and, somehow, she maybe liked it? How weird is that? And what kind of message is it giving the 6 to 12 year old boys who are watching a funny movie about baseball, underdogs, and the value of friendship?

      Anyhow – sorry for rambling on – I just wanted to make sure you knew that I hear and appreciate what you’re saying, and that I think it’s important avoid the false dichotomy of Thug vs. Beta. They’re far more similar than they may seem on the surface. Anyone who feels it’s appropriate to take what they want from another human being, regardless of whether or not that human being is interested in sharing it, is just straight up wrong.


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