I’m in the Peace Corps. And without being all that proud of it, being a volunteer is about as youth chic as it gets. Along with working for Google and, if you’ve gone to Georgetown, getting ten grand at signing to whittle your soul away from Deloitte or Credit Suisse. But for all that, there are times when I’d rather be elsewhere. Not out of the Peace Corps (although I got that response from a staff member at a party during what I thought was a nice conversation). Out of Mexico. Not because there’s anything wrong with Mexico. Kind of the opposite.
I was talking to the famous-within-this-blog Alex Guyton the other day.
We just had our first in-service training last week, and we were updating ourselves on Ukraine the whole time, the more internet connected filling in the real rural volunteers and everyone getting updates between classes. I mentioned the Crimea or something to Alex and she more or less says ‘Sure that’s crazy but look at this.’ She hauls the laptop around and I’m staring at grainy, artifacted footage of Gezis building barricades and getting firehosed by riot police all in honor of Berkin Elvan. She turned the camera back around. “General Lamarque is dead!” I say. She laughs and says ‘Pretty much spot on.’ ‘That’s what I’m good for,’ I say, ‘Half-witty commentary from the other side of the world.’ It’s about all I’m good for. I want what Alex has.
In the very first post on this blog, I wrote about Pity the Nation and how I admired the book and the author. Robert Fisk stayed in Beirut reporting on the Civil War, the Syrian invasion, the Israeli/Christian massacres of unarmed Palestinians, all of it, long past the point when other Western reporters had left for Cyprus and the bombs, militants, and kidnappings had come to dominate his side of the city. I wrote then that I would want everything that happened to him to happen to me—the near abductions, the cowering under fire, staring down Kalashnikov barrels, racing like mad from Israeli tanks and jets and soldiers—none of it. But I said it would be worth it, that I’d do it, if I had to. What I really meant is that would desperately like somebody to hire me to do it.
I have had, even before my politics took their swing, even when my folks had me convinced for a moment (amicably, not in a weird, brainwashy way) that I ought to be a Republican, I’ve had a kind of amorphous, directionless wish to rebel, to be the underdog, to fight the powers that be. I was fascinated with the sixties, standing up in front of the Low Library at Columbia or speechmaking at Berkeley. With the French Revolution and the Russian, all of it. My ideas about the world are (slightly) more defined now, but that same vague wish that I were part of a movement sticks around. Rowley Rice and I (like everyone on the Hilltop, in the world) watched Tahrir enraptured and started a pool on Morsi’s ouster. I spent all last summer fixing the Brotherhood uprising and the Syrian Civil war with Gabriel Pincus over hookah. Trey and I keep up-to-the-minute on Ukraine. I was delighted to have the Gezi stuff to look into since I thought it’d died down.
None of this is to make me seem informed, talk myself up, prove some credential. Because no matter how many New York Review articles I go through, streams I watch, feeds I follow, I’ll never have a real sense of what’s happening or an actual commitment thereto. I’m a spectator, a voyeur, wishing I was in the game, had the confidence and the conviction, the energy, the impulse.
Which is why I wish I were in Istanbul with Alex—it’s what grabbed me after Pity the Nation, the futile, selfish, misguided idea that if I were there, if it were happening all around me, I’d somehow transform from a shitty reporter to a good one, that I’d become some sympathetic hero-journalist, defending the purity and purpose of the Revolution, whichever Revolution.
Maybe it’s that I know it would take something extraordinary to put me into news. I don’t have the force of will (it’s a running theme here) to work two jobs and write on the side for two years. Or the talent to avoid it. Or maybe it’s the morbid fascination with downfall and apocalypse that Zadie Smith talks about (in this article you should read right now). The thrill I and everyone gets when it seems like people are in the streets everywhere. Or maybe its the catharsis of vicarious action, Revolution, social change, an airing of national laundry over there because we know it won’t happen over here.
In the end it’s all hokum. I don’t want to leave the Peace Corps, and when exciting times come to a host country, the Peace Corps does not stay. Right now, they’re looking where to put the 250-odd volunteers who just left Ukraine. I could get my share of danger and possible-to-probably kidnap and death with the narcos here at home. I’ve this delusional, ultimately narcissistic wish for a tailored unrest, personalized violence, destruction that’s just right for me, because it’s easier to dream about Hemingway and Orwell in Spain than to take the leap and go anywhere and write anything.
I wish there was some upswing to put here at the end.