יום שני, 1 באפריל 2019

What Beto’s Weird Teenage Poetry Tells Us About His Politics

Before he ran for president, a young Beto O’Rourke dabbled in criticism, fiction and more. And he wasn’t half bad.


Politics are ablaze today with both savage indignation and misty sentimentality. With “the future of the republic” and “justice itself” on the line in every Twitter battle, it seems unlikely that anyone would propose that a dose of irony could help lighten the mood. But … a dose of irony could lighten the mood.

Great news for us apathetic types born around Woodstock and Watergate: No need to dig up Thomas Pynchon or an Alanis Morissette CD. Look no further than Beto O’Rourke’s recently revealed teen involvement in the Cult of the Dead Cow, America’s original cell of computer hacktivists. The rad cDc, founded in 1984 in a slaughterhouse in Lubbock, Texas, was an ironic project par excellence—by turns infantile, enraged and bleeding-heart.

O’Rourke’s membership, which was exposed by Reuters and gamely confirmed by the candidate himself, surely reflects his libertarian-skater proclivities, which he flaunts to this day. But, while O’Rourke did use the Cult’s resources to cop some free long distance, it turns out at the cDc he was less pirate than poet. As the group’s old posts reveal, he mostly saw the cDc’s online board as a zine, where, under the pen name Psychedelic Warlord, he could pop off on alternative music or write indie experiments. O’Rourke doesn’t have a campaign memoir yet, but the presidential candidate now better known for winding Medium posts also has some online juvenilia that’s worth a look.

What do Beto’s musings reveal about him as a politician? “Self-invention” was a watchword of the 1980s and ’90s, with all it implied about the fictions of identity, and Beto was no stranger to persona-shuffling—then as now. In his adolescent oeuvre, he tried his hand as a critic, punk and journalist. As time went on, he experimented as a musician, outlaw, idealist, family man, skater, fundraiser, politician and, maybe, leader of the free world.

But is Beto the writer any good? Sure, he was in high school, and his stuff is mostly record reviews and snark. But never mind the bollocks. O’Rourke genuinely understands genre and tone; he’s economical and makes good words work hard; he’s playful and takes chances; he can deftly conjure odd worlds, especially interior ones; he’s recessive—or maybe afraid to commit—as a narrator; he steers clear of the projection and judgment that muck up the work of many young essayists.

Reader, he had me at the opening paren. Yes, O’Rourke used ASCII, a retro affectation that brings the top-shelf nostalgia in O’Rourke’s poem “The Song of the Cow,” which features this mini-moo-sterpiece:

[ x x ]
\ /
(` ')

That use of clashing symbols for nostrils, suggesting that one is more flared that the other! And, of course, the x-ed out eyes that conjure the slaughterhouse! O’Rourke’s teen stylings suggest the hand of a bona fide artist. Or at least a little nerd fleetingly willing to rethink Texas iconography. Then, off he goes into a pastoral poem that tackles the topic of butts or bollocks. “Wax my ass,” reads the verse, which turns liturgical in rhythm. “Scrub my balls. / The Cow has risen. / Provide Milk.” Cow has died. Cow is risen. As we approach Easter, we might consider the paschal cow to be O’Rourke’s radical critique of the paschal lamb. Cow will come again. Alleluia. Devastating commentary on the resurrection.

While it has fewer balls, another stanza caught my attention for its evocations of Nathanael West’s 1931 The Dream Life of Balso Snell, in which the hero searches for meaning strolling around inside the entrails of a Trojan Horse. O’Rourke writes:

Oh, Milky wonder, sing for us once more,
Live your life, everlusting joy.
Thrust your hooves up my analytic passage,
Enjoy my fruits

Thrust your hooves up my analytic passage—come on, that’s not bad. It works well as an ultranerdy answer to Bruce Springsteen’s manly, earnest innuendo from the then-loathed 1970s: “Strap your hands ’cross my engines.” “Everlusting” is a nice neologism in a countryside poem that doesn’t shy from evoking eternity and bestiality at once. It’s hard to remember how important irony—not just snideness and polyester coveralls, but what Richard Rorty called “liberal irony”—was to Gen-X slackers. O’Rourke was never going to let himself be seen lolling around like a farm boy writing hymns to country life and milkmaids. But, like all young poets from William Wordsworth to Bob Dylan, he also wanted to try his hand at a traditional lyric. Irony, and the elastic space of the brand-new internet, let O’Rourke come to romance at a punk angle.

Then there’s a more vicious short story by O’Rourke as Psychedelic Warlord, “Visions from the Last Crusade.” O’Rourke’s metal title fails, but the story begins, elegantly, in the “catacombs” of the narrator’s head, wherein a hallucination unfolds. In short order, the narrator realizes: “My one and only goal in life became the termination of everything that was free and loving.” Hoo boy. This is where things become a little bit manifesto-like, but what the hell. O’Rourke’s narrator goes on a killing spree, and—OK, yeah—he starts mowing down children. He keeps this up, lays to waste 38 people, evades the police—and is pleased with himself.

“Visions from the Last Crusade” is more reverie than story. It comes across as an Edgar Allen Poe tribute, with maybe an Anthony Burgess tribute rising. As a dramatic monologue, it also borrows some logic that recalls—don’t @ me—the seductive and fiendish voices in Robert Browning. O’Rourke’s killer-narrator’s delusions are not banal: When he spots his first soon-to-be victims looking carefree, he decides, “this happiness and sense of freedom were much too overwhelming for them.” Their happiness, he goes on, “was mine by right. I had earned it in my dreams.” Maybe not a campaign slogan—“your happiness is mine by right”?—but not bad, if you like online satirical murder fantasies of 1988.

What other genres did O’Rourke test out at the cDc? In 1990, he contributed to the collective a recounting of a gruesome dentist appointment that’s surprisingly dull in spite of plenty of gums and gore. (He must have liked this conceit, though, as he reprised it in January, filming his dental hygienist, Diana, as she spoke about her experiences at the U.S.-Mexico border—and cleaned O’Rourke’s teeth.) A 1989 piece called “Ultra-Trendies” is endearing for its very ’90s calibration of who is authentically punk and who isn’t; those who know all the lines in Sid and Nancy—and listen to nothing but the Sex Pistols—are, says Beto, phonies. (I sense our hero protests too much here—he’s off to Columbia in a year.) In another cDc piece, a Q&A from 1988, O’Rourke and his pal Arlo Klahr, with whom O’Rourke would start a punk band called Foss, interrogate a self-described Nazi and KKK member. Mostly, they just let him ramble, denying the Holocaust, praising the leadership of Hitler and defending neo-Nazis as loving Christians. O’Rourke and Klahr are nonconfrontational in the extreme. At the bottom of the page, they give an El Paso address for anyone who wants to mail away for the tape of the interview. A Google search suggests that the house at that address once belonged to Pat Francis O’Rourke, Beto’s father.

A Feature on Money,” from 1987, is my favorite O’Rourke from the Cult of the Dead Cow years. Yes, another negligible title. Still, the piece, a short essay, is much more sincere than the others. O’Rourke, for all he gives goth an occasional go, is just not a very dark person. And while his essay is supposed to be “radical”—arguing for a world without money—it’s really just a comfort. Turns out Beto, like anyone but a demented oligarch or the American president, is skeptical of the claim that greed is a virtue. He proposes, with all the ingenuousness of a teenager, that we “slowly take the United States off the world market, and then slowly phase out our own money markets.”

O’Rourke now insists he’s a “capitalist,” but his cDc writing suggests he can still throw down with the best of the Occupy-trained lefty foes of Wall Street. And in his essay, the sweet, slow process of obliterating the American economy has some damn good effects: “This would slowly bring the upper and middle classes of people in America together.” Who doesn’t want to all be together, without the stress of … money? I’m in.

At the bottom of “A Feature on Money,” I found the Cult’s usual libertarian contempt for copyright (“All rights worth shit—and duefully [sic] so”), but also a number to call. The idealistic Beto—the man who by force of sheer charisma can rally Americans to donate millions of dollars in 24 hours—really did want to start a movement back then! “Remember, we are the next generation, and will soon rule the world,” he wrote. I dialed up the 915 number. I figured if O’Rourke the aged hacktivist still knows how to monkey with telephony, maybe he routed that old number to his campaign headquarters. No dice. It was a law firm in El Paso, Texas. I was too not-punk to prank them. But then I reverse-searched the number online and found that, at least at some point, it belonged to none other than Pat Francis O’Rourke.

Early Beto hits the spot if you’re feeling nostalgic for the days of debates among punks or the interface of early web boards, but if you want to find one real radical cell in O’Rourke, you’re out of luck. It seems O’Rourke—minor indie showoff turned normcore candidate for president—once thought his fellow Americans might consider money the root of all evil. And he hoped we could actively converse about it, if we just called his dad.

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