Ed.’s note: The following is excerpted from a speech delivered on January 26, 2005, at Junno’s in the West Village.
When I was 13, my life was ripped apart by the United States government’s war on drugs. From the back of a courtroom I watched them sentence my father to 35 years in prison. In our tiny apartment in Albuquerque, New Mexico I watched the IRS continuously assault my mother. She was working 50 hours a week at a bakery for minimum wage trying to support two kids—and the I.R.S. was demanding $680,000 in back taxes. The Albuquerque Sheriff’s department would come over whenever they wanted to see if there were any assets they could seize from us. My kid sister got a stereo for her birthday and they took it. When I would visit my old man in the joint, the guards would make fun of me for having a punk rock hairdo, then I’d get to watch them degrade my father before they let him into the waiting room to see me.
Albuquerque wasn’t an easy place to wear spotted hair and a Social D T-shirt. One time in the parking lot outside a 7-Eleven, three frat boys chased me down the street and beat the shit out of me so bad that my retina detached. To this day I get double vision when I look sideways out of my left eye. When I was 16, I read On The Road, dropped out of high school, and wandered America.
Now, despite always having this fucked-up relationship where it did nothing but kick my ass from Day One, I always felt like America was my home. No matter what, there were these principles and ideals that spoke rock ’n’ roll poetry to my outlaw heart. A land by and for the people. A land founded in the greatest revolution of all times. I ditched most of it, but I believed what they taught in civics class. Individual rights and liberties, the value of the human being. And yes, truth, justice, and the American way. Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson were some badass dudes in my book. We might not have been the most sophisticated culture, but this be the land of Joey Ramone, Charles Bukowski, and Saturday Night Live. I mean, John Belushi was a fuckin’ American. Anne Sexton, Joe Namath, Richard Pryor—all working class products of the U.S. of A. Sure Serge Gainsbourg is good stuff, but when I’m driving down to DC with a doob in my mouth, “it’s more than a feeling” when I hear that old song babe.
And so I got myself educated at Hunter College, campaigned for Jerry Brown in Times Square, went to protests against the war, got arrested for reasons political and otherwise, wrote some books, organized literary readings, did my best to piss off the establishment, wrote journalism pieces about what I thought were important issues, and even went on Fox News one time with the sincere intent of trying to be real and spread some truth to folks who might not be hearing it. And all the while, though in my lefty Nietzschean way I always made fun of the American people, I never ceased to be one of them. Yeah, I thought I was hipper than everybody else, but the truth is that I’ve always been a lot more comfortable watching my Pittsburgh Steelers in a sports bar than at a New York publishing party. And not in any ironic way. I dig Taco Bell. Rocky is my favorite movie. I lived in Europe for two years and palpably ached for a downhome Saturday afternoon. You want to have a good time? Drink a six of Shiner and go jetskiing on Lake Travis outside of Austin, Texas. Or go grab a Jack Daniels out at one of those country western bars on Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee. Better yet, get yourself to the Virginia-Tennessee border and hang with the folk down there.
What I’m saying is that despite all our fuckin’ problems, I saw Americans as unpretentious real people who could laugh at themselves. I saw Americans as participants in a grand experiment. I saw my fellow Americans as classic rock ’n’ rollers who, when push came to shove, would stand up for the underdog. I saw Americans as open hearted, always up for the good fight. What I’m saying is that I saw Americans as good people. America was a country made up of good people.
But that’s not what I’m saying anymore.
I expect power to be abusive, blind, and mediocre. Give a 19-year-old kid a badge and watch him turn into an asshole. Take some rich frat boy, make him President of the United States, watch him lie, invade foreign countries for no good reason, send young men and women to go die, destroy the environment, torture people, ignore due process of law, etc., etc. George W. Bush has never surprised me. Dick Cheney has never surprised me. Donald Rumsfeld has never surprised me. These insulated creepy fucks have done nothing but read from the script. They have done what those who assume power always do: protect the interests of the elite. Visionary leadership and the ennobling of the American heart are things that we talk about when we get stoned—not concepts found in Congress or the White House. This country has always made its way in spite of what the powerful have done.
That said, this Bush administration is particularly vile. I could write pages in blood and tears, but like a buddy said to me—it’s not like you have to go to a Trostkyite-vegetarian website to see what’s going on. Anyone mentally fit enough to, say, stand trial or get a driver’s license, can see that this Bush administration has been bad. Except that’s not really true, is it. The majority of this country, people who have earned their driver’s licenses, don’t think that the Bush administration is particularly vile or bad. A majority of this country, in fact, believes that the Bush administration has instilled visionary leadership and ennobled the American heart. A majority of this country believes him to be a good Christian man leading America in the right direction. They thank God every day that he is our president and that America is returning to righteousness.
Kind of like how we view a crotchety old man as kinda cute, I think we’ve viewed the South as kinda quaint and cute. I grew up in Texas and when you’d see a guy chewing Skoal, drinking beer, talking about them coons in the city—you’d call him a good ole boy and laugh to yourself because he was a dying breed. Yeah, the Sugarland, Texas neighborhood women’s association didn’t ask my mom to join because she’s a Chicana, but we did get into the neighborhood and no one was burning any crosses on our lawn. The perception was that the South was harmless. Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Alabama were not reflective of the rest of the country. Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Alabama were throwbacks. Rednecks, David Duke, tele-evangelism. Not even Texas was seen as reflective of the rest of the country. Go to Texas, get a pair of cowboy boots, a ten-gallon hat, get stoned, and go to the Alamo. America, one way or the other, had learned its lessons and was moving forward as a democracy.
But then one morning I woke up—I’m not really even sure how it happened—and saw that calling someone a LIBERAL was the same as calling them a Pussy or a Faggot. Those good ole boys who I thought were a dying breed were more a part of thangs than I was. Oklahoma and Alabama were reflective of the rest of the country. That hick senator from Georgia who I thought was a goofy throwback, was actually a powerful man with his finger on the pulse of the mainstream. Tom DeLay, from my home county of Sugarland, Texas, who to me and my family was an incompetent hick, is in 2005 the leader of Congress and one of most powerful men in the United States of America.
The bottom line is that November 3 was not an aberration or a product of a temporary bad time in our history that can be overcome with a Democratic focus group. November 3 was America returning to its soul and center. November 3 was the Slave States burning off the last haze of the 1960s. Maybe even the last bits of haze from 1865. George W. Bush is the American president. It is not one of those periods of fear, control, and nostalgia—he really does represent the country. Our issues and concerns aren’t even on the radar screen. On the rare occasion when we’ve managed to squeeze in someone who even remotely represents our point of view, like a John F. Kennedy they’ve killed him. Whereas Europe has moved forward with social democracy, American progressives and liberals have been reduced to total inconsequentiality because it’s not our country.
This would be less of a crisis if the United States was not the most powerful nation on the face of the earth. But the U.S. dominates the planetary dialogue, which really means that Oklahoma, Texas, and Alabama dominate the planetary dialogue. Which means that Wal-Mart, Christian Evangelicals and backwards-thinking hicks set the agenda for the planet. I don’t need to say that this isn’t good. Or that unless we do something about it, we’re going down.
And so I invoke the dread word: secession. I lived in Edinburgh for a year. Scotland basically seceded from the U.K. I lived in Valencia, Spain for 10 months, and Catalunya had a beautiful secession from Franco in the Spanish Civil War. I’ve been to Prague, where a country about the size of upstate New York split in two because—best as I can tell—the Czechs like to party and the Slovakians don’t. New Year’s Eve we danced, celebrated, and got shitfaced in Wenceslas Square. Countries, like people, break up because they need to grow. We try it out, come to a dead end, and say you go your way and I’ll go mine.
They’ve always mocked and made fun of us for our love of culture and the arts. They’ve really let us have it. Well, the good news is that they won’t have to fund it and can outlaw museums and art galleries. They can take the money used for art and education and put it all into NASCAR and the World Wrestling Federation. But we liberals, we like to be provoked and compelled. We dig our art and culture. We think art and culture are at the core of a meaningful life. We want to fund art, we want our cities bursting with it.
And of course they love jails and incarcerating people for long periods of time for drugs, so let them do it to their own people and their own children. We don’t think that marijuana is a reason for a person to go to jail. In fact, we think marijuana brings people together. We want to smoke marijuana at gay weddings. Maybe even do pills there along with a line of coke to stay up so we can have orgies on mushrooms. (Or is that just me?) We want drugs to be legal. And if people develop a problem with drugs, we want to get them help, not send them to jail.
We’re liberals after all. We read books and like to think, we don’t like killing innocent people, we question those in power, we insist on having a voice in our own government, we like personal freedom and think education and travel and exposing one’s self to other influences and cultures is a good thing. We like challenging ourselves with different points of view. We like multicultural societies. We think Europe is groovy. We like equal rights for women, public space, and libraries.
And now, we want to move forward and live in a progressive democracy of which we can be proud. Probably something that feels a lot like Amsterdam, which Middle America and the South would send their children off to go die before they ever let happen.
So it is time for us, as perhaps we should have done many years ago, to secede from the Slave States. To leave them behind once and for all. We need to live in a different way. We need to Wake Up knowing that creative solutions and imaginative thinking are intrinsic to our lives. That we don’t have this retread Southern tire hanging around our necks keeping us from evolving as human beings. I don’t belong in the same country where George W. Bush is the right and natural leader. I don’t belong in the same country where Tom DeLay controls Congress. And I don’t want to feel that when I pay taxes I’m taking part in some loathsome, destructive machine. I want to live in the country that Thomas Jefferson envisioned when he split away from oppressive England. I want to live in the country that Tom Paine wrote about and that Lenny Bruce preached for. I want to be able to hold my head up high when I tell people where I’m from. The bottom line is that I want to live in the most liberal, free, kick ass, progressive, sustainable, honest, cultural, brave, and realistically hopeful nation on the planet.
There is a glorious history of great cities establishing their own autonomous regions. I believe that this can start here with the New York Secession.
JASON FLORES-WILLIAMS is a lawyer in New Mexico.