Over the last nine years, people have routinely asked, “How did you become politically conscious and actively engaged?” It’s a fair question. After all, I wasn’t raised in a political household, nor were my parents counterculture radicals or hippies.
For me, conversations with close friends, books, drugs and music were the key factors in shaping my worldview, morals and politics. In other words, my political awareness was raised through social and cultural experiences, both collective and individual.
Growing Up in a Neoliberal World
Born in 1984, I was raised in a neoliberal world. In fact, my generation doesn’t recall a time prior to neoliberalism because we’ve never lived in a world without it. Our entire experience has been colored and shaped by a hyper-materialist consumer culture hell bent on privatizing and commodifying every last inch of the planet.
As kids, we didn’t dream of helping our neighbors or volunteering in our local communities, at least not in the neighborhoods where I grew up; we dreamed of mansions, vacations in the tropics, fast cars and various other symbols of wealth, not to mention violence, as we were bombarded with militaristic propaganda in the form of Hollywood films, video games and TV sitcoms — all of which glorified killing and hyper-masculinity.
Simultaneously, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, hip-hop and alternative rock music were sweeping the American cultural landscape. For me, these art forms represented a break from the normal, mundane routine of suburban teenage life in modern America. In this context, I started to think about black culture, police violence, alienation and gender for the first time in my life. Here, I should thank 2Pac and Nirvana for they planted the seeds of rebellion.
During those days, I didn’t grasp the nuances inherent in the production of modern culture, nor did I understand that capitalism could co-opt and manufacture it (Che Guevara T-shirts, peace signs, gold chains, etc.). Without question, I was ignorant, uninformed and lacking the education necessary to properly digest the American cultural milieu.
Years later, I revisited the work of the many artists I was listening to as a kid, particularly Kurt Cobain’s writings and lyrics. Cobain wrote at length, and in a compassionate and educated manner, about violence, masculinity, feminism and racism. His journals, published almost ten years after his suicide, provide a glimpse into the mind of a radical artist living in Ronald Reagan’s America.
As a kid, I didn’t quite understand how all of this was connected to my own feelings of alienation and depression, but eventually I understood why Cobain was so angry, so enraged: America is an insane place to live for anyone who’s thinking critically and seeking community, compassion and other forms of human interaction.
War, Psychedelics and Politics
Often, personal struggles and trauma ignite political consciousness. Throughout the years, I’ve met hundreds of political activists and artists who’ve told me that their eyes were opened through some form of personal trauma: the death of a loved one at the hands of police, the horrors of drug addiction, extreme poverty, war, etc.
As mentioned above, my political awakening came via my experiences in the military. That soul-crushing, extremely rigid and authoritarian institution forced me to rebel. I simply couldn’t take it anymore: I hated being told what to do; I hated the command structure, and the fact that truly ignorant people were in charge of my life. I loathed the hyper-masculine culture and the moronic behavior it bred. Most of all, I started to question state violence and cherish knowledge, love and compassion.
Indeed, my journey from subordinate to rebellious marine was a quick one. Yet, my political consciousness remained dormant. Then, things changed. Right around the time I was coming home from my first deployment, my friends were coming home from their first year at university. During this period, I was first introduced to Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, William S. Burroughs and psychedelics.
Without doubt, it’s fitting that psychedelics and literature fell into my lap at the same time. My mind, still reeling from military training exercises and absurd traditions, required a drastic rupture. In other words, drugs helped me shed my military conditioning, while reading helped me better understand it.
One of my first experiences with psychedelics was in a university dormitory. I was 19 years old and visiting friends at St. Joseph College in Northwest Indiana. After ingesting several grams of mushrooms, I started to look at my military tattoo, which features skulls, knives and fire. Almost immediately, I started to cry as the tattoo represented the source of my pain and suffering: the military and hyper-masculinity.
Courtney, my friend, asked, “What’s the matter? Is something wrong? What did I do?” Embarrassed, I ran out of the room and locked myself in the nearest bathroom. Eventually two of my buddies knocked on the door. After letting them in, I simply said, “I don’t want to kill anyone for the US military. I can’t do this anymore.” It was in that moment, a brief detachment from reality, a flirtation with the spiritual, that another seed was planted: I no longer identified as a US Marine. I would no longer subject myself to the cult of masculinity and the horrors of state violence.
I wanted a life filled with love, and fun, and all the beautiful things that provide human beings genuine pleasure. Military culture was no longer attractive or exotic; it was banal, cold and embodied what Sigmund Freud called humanity’s death drive.
Nevertheless, I went back to my unit in 29 Palms, California. Why? Because I was scared; I didn’t know my rights, and had no experience with GI resistance. Plus, I felt a certain kinship with the marines I had already trained and deployed with, so I had to go back, or at least I thought I did.
Two weeks before my second deployment to Iraq (August, 2004) my Southern Baptist friend from Kentucky, Joshua, took me to the San Diego movie theater to see Michael Moore’s documentary film, “Fahrenheit 9/11.” This was the first time I was exposed to a political documentary. It was also the first time I started to question the political reasons for the war in Iraq. Immediately, I thought about what my dad had said: Iraq is my generation’s Vietnam. Of course, his observation turned out to be deadly accurate.
One week later, I was in Al Anbar Province, patrolling the dusty and treacherous roads of Al Qaim. Within a matter of days, it was clear the local population didn’t support the US-led occupation. Almost immediately, I placed myself in the shoes of the Iraqis, and tried my best to comprehend their plight and perspective. However, it became quite apparent that my anecdotal experiences needed an intellectual foundation.
In November, 2004, the alternative rock group, A Perfect Circle released their third studio album, “eMOTIVe,” a collection of classic antiwar and protest songs, remixed for the modern era. When Joshua’s mother sent the CD to Iraq, she also sent sheets of printed lyrics from the album, giving Joshua and I plenty of reading material in the days and weeks that followed. After reading pages upon pages of lyrics, I started to search for more information about the antiwar perspective. Before long, I found Noam Chomsky’s work.
By March 2005, I was reading “Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order” while standing post in Iraq. A couple months later, I refused to deploy for a third time, rendering my career in the military obsolete. The Marine Corps administratively discharged me and I returned home, radicalized, angry and committed to changing the world.
Motivating People with Culture
In the end, why should I expect people to become motivated by analysis, statistics and theory when I wasn’t primarily motivated by those things? Of course, everyone is different — that goes without saying. Some people are indeed motivated by lectures and lengthy academic-style essays, although I doubt it’s many.
Yet, I see rally after rally, conference after conference, article after article, preaching to the choir and confronting non activists in the most awkward and off-putting of ways. Then, these same radical activists, thinkers and writers step back and ask, “Why aren’t people joining our movements?”
Without question, simply telling people the world is going to hell in a hand basket isn’t the most effective way to get people involved with political movements. Likewise, it doesn’t make sense to give someone a copy of “Hegemony or Survival” if they’re not already concerned with political issues.
So, the next time you run into someone who’s the least bit interested in politics, please invite them to your house for a dinner party, not the next local organizing meeting. Pass along some of your favorite albums and books. Share a joint and some personal stories. These very basic acts of kindness and friendship will yield greater results than taking someone to the next protest.
Vincent Emanuele is a writer, activist and radio journalist who lives and works in the Rust Belt. He can be reached at vincent.emanuele333@gmail.