Even I impress myself sometimes with the amount of groceries I can carry on my back.
Even I impress myself sometimes with the amount of groceries I can carry on my back.
Last Wednesday, as I was sitting in my house waiting for the great Spring blizzard that never came, I began to notice reports about a gunman who had barricaded himself inside the Panera Bread on Route 27, right across the street from Princeton University. Here it goes again, I thought to myself, dreading not only the body count, but the inevitable NRA talking points about how New Jersey’s strict gun control laws had failed to prevent the latest massacre. As the siege wore on, however, it became clear that the would be shooter was alone, that he had allowed all of the Panera Bread’s employees and customers to escape through the back door. There would be no massacre. All the police had to do was wait until he got sick of it, came outside, and surrendered. Since Princeton University was on Spring Break and the Governor had just declared a “state of emergency” ordering all non-essential vehicles off the roads during the snowstorm, I was confident that they would take him alive.
I was wrong. They shot him dead. Apparently he went for his gun.
When the gunman was revealed to be a 56-year-old man from Newton Pennsylvania named Scott Mielentz, all I could think was “there but for the grace of a few mental defects go I.” A search on Google quickly revealed that he had been marginally employed in the IT industry for the past 20 years, but not in the glamorous Stanford to Silicon Valley way. This was a man who made $60,000 a year installing anti-virus software and fixing administrative assistant’s printer. Sometime around 2012 or 2013, he seemed to lose the will to hold down a steady job. Looking at his nondescript, doughy, white Pennsylvania German American face, it’s not difficult to see why. Mielentz was not the kind of person you’d give a second look if you passed him by on the street. He could have been a fireman or a cop, a high school janitor, or just the ineffectual middle-aged teenager who still lived with his parents. He was not the kind of man any woman could fall in love with, but maybe one or two would settle for him if, and only if, he were gainfully employed.
In short, Scott Mielentz was what feminists and people on the left refer to as a “mediocre white man,” someone who had all the “privilege” to make it under capitalism, but for some reason, just couldn’t.
It is unclear whether or not he was mentally ill. In 2014, he applied for and was awarded disability benefits, which the government quickly revoked after they found out he had made $17,900 in consultant fees while he collected his government checks. That led his being a defendant in a federal lawsuit and a carelessly filed bankruptcy, which discharged over $100,000 dollars in credit card debt, but not, of course, the money he still owed the IRS, or the Security Administration. The government actually went easy on him, arranged a settlement whereby he could pay back the money in installments of $100 a month (white privilege at work), but of course by this time, $100 a month might as well have been $100,000 a month. If he originally faked being mentally disabled to collect disability payments, he now seemed to convince himself to become mentally disabled. His wife reports that by this time he lost the ability to accomplish even basic tasks like preparing his meals.
His life, in other words, was effectively over. Capitalism no longer had any need for Scott Mielentz. He wasn’t going to get another corporate job, write the great American novel, fall in love, or lead the proletarian revolution against the Darwinian world that he chewed him up and spit him out. There was really no reason for him to spend the next 20 or so years scrambling to survive, so he chose what was, quite honestly, probably the best of all possible options. He checked out early.
But why suicide by cop? A carelessly reported detail clears it up. Mielentz, the local newspapers, reported, was suffering from “post traumatic stress” during his time as an Army Ranger in Laos in the late 1970s. Of course thinking about it for more than 5 seconds reveals that there’s no way he could have served in the military in any capacity in the 1970s — he would have been 16 years old in 1979 — let alone a member of an elite special forces team. But that’s how he had come to see himself. That’s the fiction he invented to make what was left of his life bearable, to justify in his own mind the disability benefits he had scammed off the taxpayers and the massive credit card debt he had racked up over the years. Thus, in his imagination, he was no longer just a mediocre white man who had lost the will to live. He was a Vietnam Vet still suffering the effects of our ill-guided occupation of Southeast Asia. The only thing left to do was dress up in fatigues, grab his AR-15 (if in fact that’s what he had), and live out the story that has been playing in the headlines over and over and over again over the past decade.
That’s the thing with “my generation,” very late Boomers and very early Gen Xers. We’re a little bit of everything and a lot of nothing. Scott Mielentz couldn’t pull of the Boomer cliche of “disturbed Nam vet.” He couldn’t pull off the millennial cliche of “incel video game nerd so sick of not getting laid that he finally becomes a mass murderer” so he went for a lukewarm combination of both. Thank God the only person he killed was himself.
That’s important. Scott Mielentz did have one redeeming quality. He let the employees at the Panera Bread go. These days that’s saying a lot.
The closest thing I’ve ever seen to a fascist country was the United States of America between 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. The classic Marxist dictum that everything happens twice, once as tragedy, once as farce, still holds. George W. Bush may have been a buffoon, just like Donald Trump, but the people around him, the Cheneys and the Karl Roves, were hard, disciplined, competent. They used 9/11 for everything it was worth, played the American people like a violin, built an almost seamless network of propaganda between the the White House and cable TV news, and branded all dissent as weakness at best, treason at worse. The Trump administration, by contrast, is disorganized, ineffectual, a grotesquely comic opera buffa. Now that Trump has appointed John Bolton, one of the most belligerent of the Bush era neocons, to the position of National Security Adviser, he finally seems determined to become a “war president” just like Bush. We’ll see if he can pull it off. I suspect Bolton will last all of six months.
The man speaking in the video above is former Georgia Governor and Senator Zell Miller, a far right wing Democrat who decided to throw his support to George W. Bush and speak at the Republican National Convention in 2004. If the organizers of The March for Our Lives want to know why Americans are killing one another, they could do worse than to examine this fascist cretin. Miller starts off by declaring that all of our rights come, not from the Constitution, nature or “nature’s God” but “from the soldier.” It gets worse after that. Miller’s speech is pretty much just a nasty old man reeling off the names of (expensive and useless) weapons systems while the audience (all members of the Republican Party elite) all but cum in their pants. I’m glad Miller’s speech was recorded. It is a document of a profoundly disturbed, even demented culture. The Republican National Convention that night was just as frightening as any Nuremberg rally. A million Iraqis paid with their lives.
I can’t say I’m glad Zell Miller is dead. He was 86, after all, and dying that age is normal. I will say that I hope he died in a lot of pain, slowly, and in the ugliest manner possible, howling in agony as he pooped into a colostomy bag, and felt his muscles atrophy away from his brittle old bones. This man, and the culture he represented, lived far too long.
I have little or no interest in superhero movies. Nevertheless, there are times, The Dark Knight Rises after the Aurora Colorado shootings, Wonder Woman after Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, when I almost feel as if it’s my civic duty to see the latest offering from Marvel or DC Comics. After Black Panther grossed a billion dollars, it became one of those times.
So, is it a good movie?
Absolutely. Black Panther is an entertaining film with terrific acting and special effects, and a script that while politically dubious, is lucid and tightly written. Somehow Ryan Coogler, who previously directed the low key, low budget Fruitvale Station and Creed, has made the transition to a blockbuster with a $200 million-dollar budget with little or no effort. Compared to the blockheaded, right-wing Dark Knight Rises, or the inconsequential Wonder Woman, Black Panther is a masterpiece. Not only are Lupita Nyong’o and Letitia Wright far better as feminist heroines than Zionist beauty queen Gal Gadot — women don’t quite get top billing in Black Panther but are vividly and sympathetically depicted — the film’s vision of Wakanda, a mythical African country in sole possession of the world’s supply of vibranium, a fictional metal that could represent gold, oil, uranium, brainpower, or just about anything you want, is a powerful evocation of the Africa that could have been had the continent not been despoiled by European colonialism.
But is it a great movie?
Sadly no. While Black Panther is aesthetically radical, it is also politically muddled, and even reactionary. To be more generous, let’s just say that, to paraphrase William Blake on John Milton, Ryan Coogler is the true poet, and of the devil’s party without knowing it. Michael B. Jordan’s villain Erik Killmonger Stevens is far more sympathetic than King T’Challa, the hero played by Chadwick Boseman. While he gives Killmonger an air of complexity and moral ambiguity that elevates him above Heath Ledger’s nihilistic Joker, Michael B. Jordan cannot quite break out of the two-dimensional superhero narrative. In a better film, Killmonger would have been the hero, and Andy Serkis’s Klaw, a man who never expresses any overt hostility towards blacks but whose accent, which evokes white South Africa, and “fashy” haircut make it all too obvious that he represents white supremacy, would have been the villain.
Chadwick Boseman, while a fine actor, labors under the handicap that King T’Challa, the Black Panther, is more Clark Kent than superman. I won’t give any spoilers, but try to guess who finally kills Klaw, the terrorist who murdered T’Challa’s father. T’Challa, or Killmonger? And I think this points to the real problem with Black Panther. Ryan Coogler, whether he’s overthought the genuinely moral nature of his hero, or simply because he wants to stick to the Hollywood blockbuster dictum that a film with a budget of $200 million dollars has to appeal to the widest possible audience, creates a mythical black nationalist kingdom, yet can’t quite bring himself to let its king be a black nationalist.
Instead, T’Challa is part black, bourgeois separatist, part Barack Obama. He is afraid to use the power that his sole possession of Vibranium would give him to uplift the world’s downtrodden third world masses, yet more than willing to enlist not only his country’s traditional African enemies, the Jabari, but a ridiculous CIA agent played by Martin Freeman, to get his throne back. Indeed, while Coogler suggests that Killmonger would wreak some kind of horrible vengeance against white people, Killmonger’s real hatred isn’t for Europeans, but for the black bourgeoisie who robbed him of his birthright and left him to grow up in poverty in a rundown Oakland slum. Compared to Killmonger’s vision of world revolution, T’Challa’s final act, to put his little sister in charge of an NGO that operates up a network of community centers in the United States, seems uninspired indeed.