Black Ribbon Award

Month: March, 2016


I. The Infernal Assembly Line


I imagine it could have happened anywhere. Maybe Woodstock, or Altamont. Maybe the Summer of Love, or the Days of Rage. All the ingredients necessary were there, thousands of young people, born at a certain time in a certain context, filled to the brim with verve and many shades of lust, ceaselessly wound up by the onslaught of events that are thrown at them, but centered by their belief that they can combine their efforts in so inarguable a way as to entirely reverse the parade of evils battering them without relent: the evils of war, the evils of economy, the evils of men. It only takes one, with comparably fewer bearings about him, wandering off from the hang-ups of his concrete existence and into a rainbow-pattern vortex. He is greeted by a warmth emanating outward from his core being that many associate with freezing to death. He has found it, he realizes: Aquarius. But before he can frolic through the magic mushroom fields or drink from the acid river, the vibe is undermined completely. The flowers shrivel and the sky is ashen, the shag lounges are hollowed stone ruins. Aquarius has shifted into Carcosa. And then appears a Hassle, perhaps a cop, a recruiting officer, HAL from 2001, or his dad. He freezes and falls back, expecting the throttling of a lifetime. But this is not to be:

FIGURE: Please allow me to introduce myself …

MAN: What?

FIGURE: I am a man of wealth and taste …

MAN: Huh?

FIGURE: Fuck. I’m Satan. I’m here to give you a gift.

MAN: What is it?

FIGURE: Whatever you want.

MAN: You can do that?

FIGURE: Yes. I’m the Lord of Darkness.

MAN: There’s just so much to take in. I think I’m coming down.

FIGURE: The first thing that comes into your head. Really.

MAN: I want to stay young for the rest of my life.

FIGURE: It is done, though I should disclose that it is not exactly free.

MAN: No man, I’m good for it. Just … have the Dean call my folks they’ll get it squared and I’ll graduate on time.

FIGURE: Okay, sign here.

MAN: (retches)

Hours later he awakens in some shrubs, his girlfriend arrested, his other girlfriend has moved in with her other boyfriend, one of his shoes is missing. He goes to Burger King and gets an underwriting job at New York Life.

Though a healthy percentage of this scenario is purely speculative on my part, its plausibility is without question. I think you will find that it is entirely plausible that anyone within conscription age in the late 1960s could be convinced by even the crudest of tricksters that he or she could converse at any point with Satan. It is more plausible still that any baby boomer today could formulate this as a very persuasive rationale for what they see as the karmic debt they are paying as pioneers of perpetual adolescence. Things like disco, the oil crisis, and Oliver North seem like dollar store items compared to the abberative presence of the millennial, the progeny that infests not just their homes, but their newspapers, their screens, increasingly, though gradually, their office space, and perhaps their sleep as well.

Appearing mostly on the farthest reaches of their periphery like pastel gargoyles, the mere presence of millennials is draining and haunting. They seem to know little of the contents of their characters or the depths of their desires. “What purpose do they serve,” the boomers ask, “than to give us dread? Or worse still, to collect on our debt; to come in when we are at our weakest, unhinge their jaws, and transfer our virility and zest onto themselves, to abuse and make mockery of?” Those few who have dared to ask directly, often in a spattering of emoji, have only received an ever blinking ellipses in return. There is a time to find out, not of their choosing. It is in the fine print somewhere, covered in bile.

Though the temptation is there, it is important here that we not fall for them. Rather, that they do not use their pitiful circumstances to illicit from us our feelings of pity. It is not so much that we are free of obligation to feel pity for them, collectively or individually, but it is more that pity is a poorly secured gateway into what they actually want.

Whether, in the end, they see their situation as a bargain, a hex, or an illness they nonetheless see it as nonnegotiable, irreversible, or incurable. The ideal world has the Faustian figure make his deal then either accept its terms and commence damnation or find an out based on the selflessness, kindness, and good nature on which Satan is predominantly bearish. Whether these options were never made explicit to them or they simply didn’t find them workable, the boomers have opted against them, choosing instead a third option, seemingly of their own design. They will accept damnation, but will not do so alone. In overcoming the millennials, the boomers will seduce them into empathy, derailing  whatever original plans they had in store for them. They will bring them, in effect, under contract and become rentiers over their own retribution. Adolescence is not only perpetuated onto new generations, but perpetuated in a single image, and will replenish itself with the merciless, untiring rhythm of industry. It’s enough to make one wonder if Satan is in the mold of Henry Ford, a tycoon with unparalleled technical foresight, or Abraham Lincoln, a politician whose every action seldom, if ever, bore consequences that backfired against his intentions.

II. Teen Creeps

Lucky Generation

Youth as a romantic ideal is nothing new. We could perhaps chart its birth as early as 1774, the year that Johann von Goethe’s debut novel The Sorrows of Young Werther was published. Goethe himself was 24 when he wrote it and like most things one creates at that age, he came to regret ever having done so, and despised the romanticism it helped to catalyze. But of course the novel shadowed him for the rest of his life and long after. Werther was an immediate success upon publication. Some might say that Goethe was the Bret Easton Ellis of his time, but that is insufficient. Ellis triggered higher than usual book sales among tony college students, to be sure, but nothing in Less Than Zero suggests the unprecedented intensification of the connection between product and consumer that was “Werther fever,” which caused men to replicate Werther’s mode of dress, and in some cases his mode of death. Frank Sinatra, James Dean, or Madonna are more fitting comparisons. It is a novel more replicated than read. It is on Werther that all of the tropes of pop culture and pop fandom are founded, and as such so is the drama and passion of modern youth.

These roots are further explored in great detail by Jon Savage in his book Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, which makes mention of innovators like Goethe and Rousseau, but focuses on the period between 1875, with the dropping of child labor laws and 1945, with the dropping of the atomic bombs. Savage’s territory is familiar to us, but not entirely known. He details the authoritarian roots of the Boy Scouts, the socialite ghosts of London’s “Bright Young People,” and the redeeming Depression era appeal of both the New Deal and the Hitler Youth. The book’s cutoff at the end of World War II has a culminating effect. This is implied more heavily in the film adaptation of the book.

At one hour and 17 minutes in length, it is a kind of mood documentary comprised mostly of image collages and first-person testimony read by young actors. Though it is as much interested, perhaps more so, in what Savage’s tome foretells as it is in the history it narrates. Youth and adults are kept fully separate throughout the film. They are worlds at odds, seemingly impossible to coexist. But if a bridge can be built, it comes through in the subtlest suggestion. “[My mom] asks me why I thought [jazz music] was good” states the testimony of a British boy, “and I said: ‘Because it comes from America.’”

That Teenage is centered largely on the twilight years of old world Europe is no accident. Nor are the vague incantatory mentions of America, as that is primarily what America was at the time: a figment and legend, an unnatural country, the fabric of which is sewn together by repeat onsets of anxiety, pangs impelling repeat, and habitual rebirth. Yet that anxiety has allure compared to the iron stability of the great continent, which in short order revealed itself to be no less stitched in place by frantic patchwork. “The old had sent us to die,” another disembodied teen declaims, “and we hated them.” America comes in under a shockingly uncritical gaze. An anxious Joie de vivre must have appealed as near-revolutionary to the young Europeans stifled, and then some, by their elders’ shame-ripened death drive. It is almost surreal to see America’s postwar economic opportunism reflected back as a beacon of liberation and redemption, let alone appreciated as a veritable utopia of romantic renewal and consummate agelessness.

III. How Punk Rock is That?


Savage’s interest in youth culture is rooted in no small way in his direct participation in it. His entry into writing was through British music magazines in the late 1970s, coinciding with the ascendance of punk in the United Kingdom. Punk informs all of his career directives and this is no less the case with Teenage. “[P]unk’s historical collage … marked the moment when the linear forward motion of the sixties was replaced by the loop,” he wrote in its introduction. “Suddenly, all pop culture time was accessible, on the same plane, available at once.” Here Savage is talking about punk aesthetics rather than its character, a not uncommon tradition as the former is pinned down with less difficulty than the latter.

If forced to pinpoint where punk as we understand it came into being, it would be somewhere in the early to mid-1970s, in between Suicide using “punk music” on their show fliers to Lester Bangs’s fleshing out the concept in his billowing anti-jargon. Bangs notwithstanding, the baby boomers seemed to have overlooked its emergence almost entirely, as evinced by the hasty catch-up being played on Martin Scorsese’s Vinyl. Punk’s occasional relapses into the mainstream, when not disdained, are often viewed through their particularly colored lenses. Youth, crying out from under the suffocation of workaday conformity, wanting to be heard. It is in the spirit of Elvis if not quite as good, but mostly an inconvenient detour between comeback album hosannas and flowery canonizations. But punk’s resilience is neither surprising nor impressive, the generational framework a conceptual shackle on its far vaster scope.

What is most off-putting about punk, and not without justice, is that it is all things to all punks. Punk is unceasingly wrestling one contradiction against another: resignation against resilience; detachment against intensity; indifference against earnestness; artifice against authenticity; individualism against populism; sophistication against simplicity. It is why, on the surface, bands like Minor Threat, Black Flag, and Negative Approach come off only subtly distinct in sound, but, on further examination, worlds apart in concept; and indeed, for all intents and purposes in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Washington DC, Los Angeles, and Detroit might as well have been different planets. Punk’s character makeup, then, isn’t all that different from its aesthetic makeup. It too is a hodgepodge of ideas long ago growing from the American cultural grain. It takes from the radicalism of Thomas Paine, Lysander Spooner, William Lloyd Garrison, and Victoria Woodhull; from the anarchic satire of Ambrose Bierce and William S. Burroughs; from the bleak noir of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson; and from the high ideals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Adams, Woodrow Wilson, and John Dewey.

I limit my assessment to America for the same reason it is so casted in the Teenage film. The United States is often seen as the pinnacle of the reactionary state, and in some ways it is. Americans cling to its traditions, its habits, and its legal framework as they would a dying lover. Yet those grips are easily loosened when played out in historical practice. Americans have upended their society numerous times since its founding, if not (always) on a level of law then certainly on a level of character, admittedly with varying degrees of bloodletting and equitable results. The America of Washington and Jefferson is hardly the America of Jackson and Polk, or Lincoln and Grant, or Roosevelt and Roosevelt, or Reagan and Clinton. Before the Orange Juice lyric “rip it up and start again” became a punk slogan, the United States had perfected it in example. The catastrophic unraveling of France in 1793, though sometimes within reach, has been averted fairly successfully so far. More enshrined than any constitutional principle is the dynamic, self-determinate ethos so often professed and/or carried out by punk bands throughout its existence.

That America is the punk state is perhaps the most confounding contradiction of an already sufficiently contradictory genre. Its implications are at once empowering and terrifying, depending on who, at any given time, can take the scissors and shred the fabric once more. In this sense, punk is not a freak accident of culture that many, not least of all punks, like to portray it as. It is an inevitable outcome, a feature rather than a bug. It is in no way impossible to see in Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto or Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail as latter-day embodiments of Paine’s summer soldier and sunshine patriot.

Punk’s demonstrated ethos, then, on both the local and world-historical levels, offers an alternative to rather than a pushback against the specter of perpetual adolescence. It is, to redeem a long ago tainted phrase, a positive good at its core, a social covenant of its own.

IV. Dream Baby Dream


But one people cannot be held to two covenants, so one must then be a corruption bordering on heresy, but hopefully one born of woeful disorder rather than willful misdeed. Punk’s final and most contested contradiction is between idiosyncrasy and absolutism. Few cultural movements have been so fruitful and so varied in its creation, especially with so little resources to go around, rivaling only hip hop in productivity, diversity, and reach. But hip hop never succumbed to punk’s unshakable reflex for policing. From Darwinian scene politics to poser purges to the more unsettling and widespread militant straight edge movement (not to mention the more peculiar but no less earnest offshoot “Krishnacore”), the authoritarian urge burns brightly beside the creative passion, often searing it in the process.

Punk is an orthodoxy of change. If it can’t change then it can’t live. In seeing the boomers, punks have their own reasonable fears. No one is more conflicted about his or her station, and their effect on punk culture, than the punk who is aging. Nostalgia is a recurring theme in the genre, but one that is conveyed with perplexity, like a final effect of puberty. Ian MacKaye reached it early, just barely into his twenties when he wrote “Salad Days” for Minor Threat: “Look at us today/We’ve gotten soft and fat/Waiting for that moment/It’s just not coming back.” Punk is a relentless passion with physical and cerebral limits. Shaking the ideals which propelled one into punk is more difficult than falling out of love, yet it is incompatible with the energy required to endure the passion of its newcomers or to comprehend their own vision of what punk is and should be.

Ian MacKaye looms large in the mind of aging punks. MacKaye’s crisis would only deepen after Minor Threat’s breakup with the emo predecessor Embrace, but he would right himself with Fugazi. He does not cease, and the young give him no disdain for it. When they move the dial, MacKaye is somehow in sync with them, the making of true postmodern hero. To this the aging punk can nod wistfully, and somewhat nervously. Maturity has not always been a great boon to punk. SSD went metal, Government Issue went prog, Henry Rollins went from poet to character actor to pundit, and Black Flag itself became more self-destructive than anyone thought possible. The idea of retiring from punk’s everlasting fracas is easy enough to conceive. One last show, in your old high-tops and hoodie, then off to selling your vinyl and transferring Pony Express Record onto your iPhone only to realize that it’s actually kind of ingenious. But doing so is less simple in the concrete. Though he does not mean to and couldn’t care less about this, MacKaye’s casual consistency (as opposed to Bad Religion’s stubborn consistency) and Bismarckian resolve stands as a challenge to his peers. How punk are you, he intones in our heads. Not very, we reply. Well, were you ever?

This dilemma does not go unnoticed by the younger punks, but not with annoyance or arrogance. Stoked as much by Emersonian compassion as Jacksonian passion, flowering punks want nothing more than to seek a solution that offers help to those who need it and keeps ideals pure. If older punks have trouble retiring on their own, the younger punks will assist them. Their ever resourceful organizing prowess being what it is, the could conceivably create Youth Brigades, going around the country in search of punks of a certain age—say 35; Ex-Spectators, they might appropriately call them—and dispatch them to fresher pastures. The older punks, less out of resignation or deference than out of ethical example and desire to properly pass the torch, will likely acquiesce. Youth, change, and absolute purity, and the other plates of punk’s balancing act, spin confidently in place.

In these designs, however, the boomers have nothing to fear. They may well not even notice. Theirs is a twilight of imprisonment rather than retirement, in a gray complex of their own construction. They are, in a sense, like Jonathan Pryce in Brazil, their minds frozen in a waking dream. But instead of heroism and peace, they find contentment deferred in the endless pursuit by demonic creditors or tech-savvy vampires or latte-drunk children of the corn. But what is prison to them will be monument to others. Monuments of warning are far more impactful than monuments of mourning. It shall stand monolithic over the entire people. A perpetually ageless society, it will say to us, is brought on not by cheap bargains or cut corners. Like everything else it is worked for, it is ethical.




Every day, for the past two years, a man and a woman take what I presume is their mutual lunch break at the same time (late afternoon, somewhere between traditional lunch and school letting out) and in the same place (at the edge of our most recently built park). There they are, without fail, in their folding lawn chairs, bags of food at their feet, conversing by the wall separating the park from the railroad tracks, or among a rather dispiriting array of large boulders. I know this because every time I walk that way and at that time, I see them. Where they work, what they talk about, what their names are, if they are a couple or merely friends, or if I am as privy to them as they are to me, I have no idea, and I hesitate to ask. For one thing, it is entirely possible that they might not be able to provide answers. Though I feel the ratio never seems altogether stable, varying wildly in proportion from day to day, this town often feels more spirit than man. And who’s to say that these two are very much of the necrotic persuasion, if not placed there to haunt me in their subtle way, then to carry on their happiest business, a celestial broken record, because maybe some people really are without, or at least light on, sin?

Understandably they’ve become fixed in my life plan, the aim of which is not to be crushed overhead by the numerous other moons of stress revolving around my mind, or not to drown in an ever deepening pool of compulsory solitude. It helps that they stay as they are, not abstract but unmoved all the same, almost waxen. The voyeurism that we are compelled to engage in other situations, public displays of affection or tension, bodily exposure or harm, any kind of spontaneous or coordinated exhibitionism, fails to be stoked here. Of all of these things, this duo is routinely innocent. And I show my appreciation by refusing to inquire further, though it is as much for my sake as it is for theirs.

When it comes to investment, on a practical level, I have no record to speak of. I have never found myself piqued by the sport of financial self-betterment through market trade and speculation, nor have I found myself lulled into it by outside fellows, whether to be guided or preyed upon. Investment on an emotional level, however, is very different, in fact I am very adept and wholly unafraid to jump in those choppy waters and fish out more than a few shares. It’s very easy, getting caught up in emotional investment, but be assured that I am no fool. Spend enough time practicing and one is bound to find any number of low risk investments that yield medium, even high, reward: a book, a song, a friendship, a new brand of coffee. Yet I am also human, and as such I am just as susceptible to the temptations of greed as anyone else. Did I, in finding this couple every day in their chosen place, purchase some emotional shares in interest of their situation? Yes, who wouldn’t? Did I, in independently assessing through sheer force of instinct the relative splendor of the couple as mostly robust and long term, make myself the majority emotional shareholder of their happiness? I cannot lie that I haven’t. Is this in keeping with my low risk emotional portfolio? Not necessarily.

It seemed for many years that I would be steeped in a vague bitterness, or indeed that it would fester and mutate into a scolding magma of rage against any old knave that gets in over his or her head seemingly for the pathological kicks. But life is comical and cruel, so like the artificial pleasure servant achieving final self-awareness I have stumbled into final empathy. When you make subprime-level emotional deals, you start to feel deeply and sensitively for the real life counterparts. I, too, understand the temptation of high risk-high reward investment, and I, too, know the gnaw of fear, ever increasing in its depth and sharpness, that it will all come apart.

People who know and care about me have told me time and again what I need to do, that I need an exit strategy, that I need to dump my emotional shares, that I need to walk in the morning or in the early evening when they are sure to be absent. How adorable they all are that they think it is so easy. No. I may lack the basic coolness and control in my investments, but I am not heinous or unethical. This is my burden, my responsibility. I will walk into town every day as I always do, and on one of those days I will find not a couple but a single person, silent, outwardly peaceable but inwardly gnarled. I can only hope that no one I know will be present on that day (likely, seeing as I know fewer and fewer people here). The ensuing breakdown, always inevitable, will also be cataclysmic and irreparable. Truly this couple will be to me what the beaten horse was to Nietzsche.

What more that I have to add I don’t really know. Consider this my example. Some people are more fortunate and even-keeled. They can live life within the bounds of reason and advise others to do so through careful theorizing of the supple enigmas of their own conduct. Other people, however, felled by some strange demon, or just lacking a concrete togetherness in their shit, teach others through their real time failings, whether small and periodic, large and monumental, or a magnificent symphony of both. Consider this also my testament. I wish the sight of my enfeebled future on no one, not even the people I actively sought to unnerve while sane. I would hope that friend and foe alike would remember me for my intensity; for I, for one, see nothing wrong with intensity, burning and resolute as it often is, nor that it would lead me to gamble (in a way) on love (of a sort). You are welcome.


Nelson Rockefeller Flips Off Hecklers

I’m told that it is a common nicety shared by scores of Americans of dispositions that can best be considered reasonable to never speak ill of the dead. I can’t recall ever having heard of this custom, nor, to be frank, have I ever considered myself to have anywhere approaching a reasonable disposition or an even temperament or a chill outlook. Furthermore, it hardly seems fair for someone of my aims and abilities to be born so long after both the prime and the death of the target against whom I want to apply them. However, if it means that much to all those people, I’m willing to compromise. If it helps, I will hold off my comments until Nelson Rockefeller’s remains have been exhumed and Andrew Cuomo temporarily relieves himself of his position of Governor of New York so that said remains can be safely sworn back into office and seated in Albany for however long it takes for me to carry out this task. I’ll wait.

Anyway, I suppose I should, at the very least, know that Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller was a scion of one of the most powerul families this nation has ever produced. Or that he was, for a short time, vice president of said country, not to mention a frequent but not altogether successful applicant to the higher office. He was, indeed, a champion of “moderation” against the rush of “extremism” that captivated his chosen Republican party in the mid-1960s. In the hearts of some, he is lionized for that alone, for standing athwart history yelling, “Hey, hold your horses.” I don’t consider myself a stupid person, but for those who are inclined to disagree at their leisure, I will cede them in this instance. There is only so much knowledge I can retain, and when it comes to Nelson Rockefeller, I could only dedicate those few seconds out of my day spent not actively fretting over literally any other problem to reminding myself that he and Walter Mondale are two completely different people.

In fairness to me, it’s not hard to see why this could be. For all of their obvious distinctions—the urbane, cultured rich boy Republican versus the Plain Jane Minnesotan Democrat—Rockefeller and Mondale generally represent the same Wonder Bread banality of mid-20th century politics, or the kind that a certain generation prefers to remember: civil, averse to confrontation, and dedicated to sound policy and “good government.” In fact, one could just as easily deem this knowledge as sufficient for basically either of them, though more so in the case of Nelson, whose prime achievement may well be the natural dignity he lent to the office in which he served the greatest portion of his political career.

We tend to think of the state governorship as a kind of way station, a necessary holding place for people on the way to a more dignified level of public service. To wit, a single term of governor seems to go hand in hand with two or three terms in the House of Representatives. To grasp what is actually done in those positions isn’t as important as grasping that he or she who has sought that office has attained it, and will be able to provide greater subsequent results, and with your support there may be some incentives. And with 50 states, it’s an impossibility to keep total track of who is currently serving in any of them at any given time. It is not like in Canada, whose C-SPAN counterpart can create a multi-episode program dedicated to the arguably most notable premier of each of its provinces. Governors distinguish themselves in two ways. One is through infamy, whether it’s Orval Faubus in 1960s Arkansas or Rick Snyder in contemporary Michigan. The other is through prestige. We may never know the governor of Rhode Island, but some of us have more than passing familiarity with a Pat Brown, a Mario Cuomo, or a Deval Patrick simply by the prominence of their states. As governor of New York for four straight terms, Nelson Rockefeller had automatic reverence. It is as if he barely needed to accomplish anything, and yet that did not stop him, as we’ll see.

From 1959 until his resignation in 1973, Nelson Rockefeller’s tenure in Albany was characterized by what political lifers like to call “robustness,” the kind perhaps not seen in that office since the 1920s, when Al Smith carried out the policies that later served as the model for his successor’s own New Deal program. Indeed, to say that there was such a thing as Rockefeller policies would merit accusations of pointed insult. “Policies” are those meager morsels of political exertion that pop and crackle like flairs over state house domes, hopefully bright enough to see from Washington and from any number of donor hives. These concessions of middling radiance seemed so beneath a leader like Nelson that a whole new concept of governance had to be fashioned for accommodate its epic proportions.

More than a politician, Nelson Rockefeller was a craftsman, and his policies approaching something more akin to artistry. More than pleasing the party machinery, he sought no aim higher than the greater good of the state he was elected to administrate multiple times. His achievements are myriad and a bit difficult to summarize outside of just listing them. His fingerprints can be detected on New York’s massive education system, its environmental policy, its affordable housing policies, its tough drug laws, though not so much its current state of capital punishment. Moreover, his works have replicated on the national stage. Under his governorship, New York pioneered the abortion reform we were abruptly bestowed in Roe v. Wade. His patronage of the arts helped form the basis of the National Endowment for the Arts. He supported ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Sure, there were errors. Rockefeller played a tough hand in the Attica crisis, though the Department of Corrective Services made some effort to negotiate before ultimately cracking down.

Though they did not parlay Nelson into the White House or the Senate, these actions did cement in the minds of particularly mindful Americans an idea of Republican governance that was, on the whole, redeemable compared to what was on offer nationally. Rather than divisive, Rockefeller’s Republicanism was amenable to unity. Civil rights and “law and order,” for instance, were not mutually exclusive interests. The “Rockefeller Republican” was often considered a high honor, mostly from Democrats, and it seems the desire for the model is slipping its way into the nocturnal visions of current Republicans.

Yet Rockefeller’s achievement cannot be fully and fairly grasped on the actions he deliberately undertook. In greatness, especially so contoured and verifiable as that of Nelson’s, there is a double side, or perhaps a law of physics. For every few consequences born of action there is maybe one consequence wrought by inaction. This, too, is common among political systems, but leaders like Rockefeller practically demand inaction as outsized as their actions, and their cults.

Much of what remains of the Willowbrook State School sits in unkempt ruins in the middle of Staten Island. Closed in 1987, it functioned for four decades as a state-run healthcare center for patients with intellectual disabilities, primarily children. By the time Nelson Rockefeller had become governor the school had been functioning for 12 years, yet it never received greater attention than it did while he was in office.

Willowbrook was initially designed to house 4,000 patients within 375 acres. It was one of the biggest mental health hospitals of its kind with a design similar to Long Island’s then-massive Pilgrim State Hospital. The mid-20th century was the cultural peak of this type of building. Whatever advances had been made in understanding mental and developmental disorder, they did little to lessen the burdens, or at least the stigma, of being a family with so disordered a member, who was often sent to a place like Willowbrook on the advice of a local authority figure, a priest or doctor. This turned out to be popular advice, as hospitals found themselves quickly overtaxed. In fact, by 1965, Willowbrook’s population had exceeded its capacity by 2,000 patients, it was also the same year that Robert Kennedy went on television to personally deem Willowbrook a “snake pit,” ushering in seven straight years of bad publicity, culminating in 1972, when then-local reporter Geraldo Rivera was snuck a key to the facilities, allowing him to film and report the state of the school in grotesque and horrific detail.


Willowbrook resident, 1972, LIFE magazine.

One of the most perplexing phenomena of the 20th century for people of the 21st is that of the “mental hospital.” Its popularity as a setting for numerous horror films is proof of that, yet few can quite come out and explain what makes it entirely compelling or what, besides the aesthetic spookiness of neglected infrastructure, makes it seem evil. Often a supernatural or expressionistic explanation suffices. Institutions and the people running them being inherently good and well-meaning become corrupted in time, possessed even, by what can only be otherworldly intrusion.

It’s a fair enough ideation in a time of group homes, communal care, medication, and the smaller scale psychiatric ward, and also of the progressive, proactive approach to welfare as popularized by the leadership of Rockefeller. Rockefeller, after all, would not willfully allow Willowbrook’s population to expand while its staff atrophies, resetting the attendant-to-patient ratio from one-to-four to one-to-40. He would furthermore never tolerate patients being kicked, slapped, or otherwise struck by those overworked attendants. He would not allow the patients to be left to sit in their own excrement and filth, to be improperly fed and bathed, and to develop hepatitis, or to be subjected to experiments related to hepatitis. He would surely balk at seeing this “school” functioning more along the lines of a warehouse, its educational function degrading into a name-only nicety. Perhaps, in private moments, he did balk at this turn of events. One would hope that with each subsequent public exposure of these conditions, he expressed a sentiment higher than mild irritation. That he was, in some way, shaken to his core, his sense of morality loosened.

This, however, did not carry over into the public. In fact the opposite seems to have been the case. In spite of Rockefeller’s dynamism elsewhere, management of state mental health fell by the wayside. Where programs in education and housing expanded, the Department of Mental Hygiene was subject to budget cuts and what LIFE magazine described in 1972 as “legislative indifference.” (GOP Assembly Speaker Perry Duryea aided in cutting nearly $50 million in the mental health budget, cutting over 2,800 jobs in the process.) Attempts to right the course, moreover, were met with obstructive legal technicalities. It took a massive class-action lawsuit to be filed on behalf of the 5,000-plus residents to make way for the reforms we now have and to establish the civil rights of the disabled and disordered. Rockefeller’s successor Hugh Carey signed a consent decree allowing for the closure of state-run complexes and the creation of non-institutional treatment centers.

Supporters of Rockefeller are encouraged here to stand up for their man. They are encouraged to point out what a nightmare it was across the United States to administrate these institutions, or that the system in itself was both inadequate and the best we could offer in alleviating these problems, and that even the lobotomy was a Nobel-worthy achievement at one point. They are encouraged to point out Rockefeller’s probable dedication to the letter of the law in such matters, the technical details—such as Willowbrook not technically being a public school and hence not subject to the scrutiny petitioners demanded of it in the 1960s—that prevented any reform from happening. Perhaps it is somewhat unfair to judge a man’s actions against the tools and the knowledge he had at the time he faced these problems. As much as I’d like to think that I could do better, there is precious little proof of that, nor am I interested in testing it if given the chance. Yet my own tools—the clarity of hindsight and the moral framework with which Americans as a whole tend to judge its individual actors—keep my position resolute.

In today’s Republican Party, there is unraveling what some people see as nothing short of a hostage situation, carried out by one man and the unthinking legions his blunt words inspire to gross and devilish action. This one person, through sheer force of will, is altering a once great party into something they do not recognize. It is a party long on ignorance and brutality and short on empathy and mercy. Donald Trump waltzed from the bowels of his golden tower in Manhattan to sing a praise chorus of torture and exclusion of whole peoples in the name of national restoration. It is then the suggestion of these anxious onlookers that he be stopped. Though many practical strategies have thus far failed, there remains the overriding need for a return to what they deem sound political judgment and firm principles of leadership. They trot out failed presidential hopefuls like John McCain and Mitt Romney, champions of prudence, moderation, a compassioned, unity-friendly ethic and other abstract satellites that orbit around Planet Rockefeller.

Compassion and moderation are fine enough values to profess on their own, and with Rockefeller as their embodiment, the party people can’t help but rally around them more readily. They can work, in governance. See? But in action we find a compassion that is sectioned off, that comes with caveats. We see it denied, for whatever reason, to those most in need of it. In action, we see moderation for what it is, less of an equitable distribution of empathy and more of a rigid, technocratic, almost reactionary, tyranny of the normal. We see in Rockefeller Republicanism a reflection of Clintonian Democracy, this notion that one can profess to feel pain while at the same time taking little or no steps to heal it or even soothe it. The principle so publicly lauded—or selectively criticized depending on what type of Republican one is—in Rockefeller stands on oddly unprincipled, even merciless, ground. If distraught Republicans are finding refuge in Rockefeller from the tundra of Trumpism, they are simply moving to a slightly more vegetated tundra.

This kind of situation leaves little direction for the Republican Party to go. We can, on the one hand, give a seemingly ambitious and robust man of action control over what is in essence a rabid dog. He will do his best to give it strength and vigor while at the same time making it only more rabid than it already has been for several decades. Some are learning to live with this option, possibly hoping that if Trump smooths his intensifiers to the cadences of Macbeth, he will approach a more palatable ideal of steely Republican resolve.

For the hopeless and the romantic, however, we can simply kill the dog, take its bones and the innumerable other baggage accrued over the past century, and pile up into something of an elephant graveyard. Perhaps it can be done in Staten Island, and perhaps to distinguish this pile of refuse on an island known for its piles of refuse, one might add a monument at its center to make pilgrimage routes easier to map, perhaps a bespectacled and stately scarecrow that maybe someone didn’t quite feel like putting back where he or she had found it.

I can’t say that these are ideal solutions, in fact they are abysmal, yet they are the best options with the knowledge and the resources currently available to me.