A catcher in the rye

Lately I've wanted to beat Bush and Rumsfeld to a pulp and I'm not happy about it.

Published June 9, 2004 7:02PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm a 32-year-old single guy with a fairly stable job and my own apartment. It seems like I have a lot going for me, but lately I've been feeling depressed, anxious, angry and hateful. I spend a lot of time alone, can't seem to meet a girlfriend or even very many friends, and I feel like I haven't really smiled or laughed in a long time. I think it stems from the fact that I feel totally frustrated and upset with what's going on in the world right now and I don't know what to do. Lately I've had feelings like I just wish I could beat President Bush to a bloody pulp, Rumsfeld and those so-called soldiers who tortured the Iraqi prisoners and took photos of it too. Yeah, I really feel like I want to beat them to a pulp! I guess what I'm saying is that I'm not happy camper right now.

I was talking with my mom on the phone the other day about this, and she said that true happiness comes from within, not from external factors such as what's happening in the world, my job or material things. Of course I understand what she's saying, but I feel like if only all these bad things weren't happening in the world, I would have a better, less pessimistic outlook on life. She just said I remind her of that Holden Caulfield guy in J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" -- trying to carry the weight of the world all the time.

I feel sort of disgusted with myself for feeling this way. What can I do about this? I'd like to believe that I'm a conscionable person so I don't want to feel hatred, yet I do. And I really don't want to perpetuate it. I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I want to move forward, yet I don't feel I can so long as world events are getting uglier and uglier day by day. I have this deep longing to feel love in my life and for the world to feel it too. But instead I feel just feel sort of lost.

Not Smiling

Dear Not Smiling,

In disturbing, violent times, it's not surprising that you would have disturbing, violent thoughts. I have them, too. I can imagine beating George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld to a pulp as well. In fact, I can picture Bush taking the first punch, that look of dumb surprise amplified by the sudden, startling pain behind his eyes as he stumbles backward into the paneled wall of the Texas roadhouse where we've run into each other again after so long and with so much unfinished business between us -- stuff he did when he was drunk and claims not to remember, money he took and promised to pay back, murderous errands he sent others to undertake without protection or rationale, cocaine he stole out of the glove compartment and later cut with mannitol. I can see the whole damn thing and even though it's disturbing to imagine it, there's a cartoonish aspect to it as well, a kind of kitschy, WWF exaggeration that brands it as symbolic political speech, and not some demented, treasonous fantasy. Being an absolutist on free-speech rights, I think it is moral and just for free adults to share such thoughts. It's your own subconscious talking in the language it knows best.

Truth be told, it's also the language America knows best. Imagined violence is America's medium of moral music. It's how we stage our dramas of injury and retribution, how we portray right and wrong, how we assign the blame and the blood. It's a suitably martial language for a country enjoying its high imperial moment, drunk on unearned muscle and sentimental woundedness like an adolescent boy.

Violence being our national language, and regicide being our creation myth, what could be more natural than picturing the president on his hands and knees taking kicks to the belly in a Texas roadhouse? What could be more perfect? What could be more American?

So sure, I've got these gorgeous politico-porn fantasies of patriotic revenge as well. We're all a little bent these days, especially because, as Earl Shorris pointed out recently in Harper's, we face an elitist, anti-democratic bunch of right-wing Straussians whose inarticulate obscurity is deliberate, who do not want to be understood and do not want to engage in reasoned dialogue. Their arrogant charade makes violence as a form of expression even more appealing.

But I must pause here and tell you that several hours after I joined you in your fantasy of violence, I felt guilty and uneasy, as if I had transgressed. Was I venting buried patricidal fantasies of my own? Was I irresponsibly voicing a dangerous taboo? We live in tense, dangerous times. Our president, however flawed, is still our president and we need him. To imagine violence against him was strangely disturbing, even as it was also disturbingly elating.

So how do we square our nonviolent practice with our violent imaginings? We square them because we're adults and we know the difference between fiction and action. We understand the use of symbols. We understand the facts. He's the president. We are Americans. Whatever violent imaginings we indulge in, we remain believers in law and justice and due process and fair elections and, above all, nonviolence.

But does everyone? And if not, do we not have a duty in these tense times to avoid stirring up the unhinged? In a time of war, should we even indulge in such vivid dissent? What if you, my correspondent, my buddy in violent imaginings, are just waiting for a little encouragement to truly enact some treasonous fantasy?

In the end I decided that, to borrow a trope from the other side, if you gag yourself, the terrorists win. If you stop living as a free people, the terrorists win. So there we go. We are patriotically perverse and intuitively moral. We proudly march down Main Street with our violent imaginings, doing our part to keep this the freest country in the world.

But here's the truly troubling thought: It's not just about George Bush, is it? It's about ourselves, too -- some twisted self-hatred at the bottom of our rage, some simmering fear that we're blowing it, that with all our dreams and promise nothing's come of it yet, no kids, no wife, we're making OK dough but something's missing. The violent fantasies only tell part of the tale. At the end of the day you've got to take stock of your own life and tend to your own mess.

If you want to depose the president, do whatever you can within the system to get him out of office. But heed the signs: What your violent imaginings may be saying is that it's time to depose the cold, smirking technocrat and patriarch of your own subconscious. Face your fears. Undertake something difficult and true. Climb a mountain. Raise a family. Risk your life for something you truly believe in, or waste your life on impotent imaginings.

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