in the white city

This piece first appeared on the Dissident Voice and Counterpunch webzines.

In the White City, all the days are beautiful days. The weather is temperate and mild. The parks are spacious and gleam with care. People stroll with elegant animals, talking on the latest devices, filling the cafes at all hours of the day. In the coffeehouses where the best coffee in the world is brewed cup-by-cup for them, they sit in parallel rows like they did as children in school, seeing no one else now, gazing intently into the white screens of their gleaming devices.

There are hardly any old people or schoolchildren left in the White City. Everyone is slim and trim.

Except for one woman, standing outside a busy expensive grocery store where all the food is healthy, her hands clenched on the handle of a shopping cart which does not contain healthy food, or any food. Her face is twisted in madness. Her clothes are filthy. She screams and screams.

The busy shoppers gaze blankly past her, checking their devices as they go in and out of the gleaming store, their brown bags filled with healthy food.

In the Black City, whole blocks are empty, the houses crumble, the yards are full of weeds, the police are dressed like storm troopers in a movie of the future and tanks crawl the streets. The water is cut off when you can’t pay for it. The weather veers to wild extremes, the summers sweltering, the houses turning into ovens, the winters freezing, the houses burning through precious fuel that, like the water, is the difference between life and death and yet, unlike life and death, is not available to everyone for free.

Some people have turned to growing their own food. It’s the best food there is, the only real food there is.

The children in the Black City (there are many children) play in the streets, not in gleaming parks (there are no gleaming parks). When the police roll through in their big shiny vans, the children scatter behind fences, into weeds. One laughs a frightened laugh; one throws a casual stone.

The old men stand or sit on rickety chairs on the corner when the weather is fine. They do not stare into screens; they talk. Endlessly, warmly, sadly, they talk.

And the young men? They die. And the women rage and weep.

In the White City, they have reached utopia. They have arrived. There is nothing better this land, this time, can offer. A few are hungry, cold or sick, but what can you do? It is the Golden Age for so many, the possibilities are vast, when assessed in terms of financial return, which is the only meaningful term. Everything has a dollar value, everything has been assessed: houses, cars, education, parks, spare time. And the value just keeps growing. It’s amazing! Nothing seems to stop it. As if some sort of deity-ordained law were at work: the rich shall grow richer. The White City shall grow whiter.

In the Black City one of the old poets said: them that’s got shall get / them that’s not shall lose / so the Bible says / and it still is news

The young poets refuse this idea. Fight! they say. And then the storm troopers take them down. Unless they agree to serve the White City by singing the glories of wealth and power. But eventually they die anyway, still young. They die of rage.

Their lives have been assessed, and the value is minimal.

In the White City there are still some poets, mostly old, but they are ignored like the woman screaming in the street. They are embarrassing. They have no financial value. They cannot be assessed.

An old White poet said this:

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye

Irrelevant. He’s dead. Who was he, anyway?

Another dead White poet, traitor to his race, boy prostitute and petty criminal, said: When the punishment for guilt or innocence is the same, it becomes an act of logic to commit the crime.

In the White City, instead of poets now, they have screens. The screens of the White City are like Narcissus’ pool. In them, those in the White City gaze obsessively at themselves, at their consummate and isolate loveliness, until they fall in and drown.

In the Black City a child waves a toy gun on a playground, and police shoot him dead. How did he get it? He probably stole it. He was going down the wrong path, why wait for him to pose a real threat?

Why couldn’t you taser him? begs the distraught father. The most he could ask the police in the Black City was to shoot his child full of electricity instead of bullets.

In the White City a boy collects an enormous, expensive arsenal of real guns. Where did he get the money? His allowance? His skin protects him from intervention by any authority. He’s just going through a phase; he’ll come out of it. He takes one of his guns to a school and kills twenty children on a playground.

They were your children. They are all your children. Tasered, shot, whatever. Yours. All.

There are no children anymore, in either city. How can there be, if they can live and die like this? In the White City they are assets and liabilities. In the Black City they are criminals, or dead.

It’s more nuanced than that, plead the White City brokers. We do too love children! You have to look at individuals. You have to look at each individual case. Stop saying hurtful things and pointing fingers at us. We have feelings too. You don’t like being called animals, and we don’t like being called racist, or privileged (oh, that hurts!). We are all individuals, and individually, none of us is responsible for your woes. So just stop.

That’s what they plead for the White City. But for the Black City, they whisper, or shout: “we know what they are like.” Underneath it all, they are violent by nature, they are not civilized. That’s why they live the way they do. That’s why these things happen, and the police are called. They are protecting those people from themselves.

These are direct quotes. The comments boards, those little white holes in the white screens, have put the White id on full display. There, sealed up in a room, in physical safety, isolated from all others but the ones it wants to see, it rants and rages and foams at its virtual mouth, or it snipes and hedges and mumbles about “diversity” and how bad it is to break things.

Ah, things, yes. Because the most important things are things, of course. Civilization is founded on the concept of private property, as every civilized person intuitively understands. You can’t just go around breaking things, or stealing things, or not treating things (our things) with the respect they deserve, or it would be the end of civilization. Is that what you people want? That’s what you want, isn’t it?

In the White City there is only the future. The past does not exist, except as a kind of steampunk pose or gleaming tourist theme park. In the Black City there is only the past. There is no future, so long as there is no past in the White City.

There is no freedom in either city. But here’s the reason: there is no such thing as freedom anyway, except as the opposite of slavery. There is no such thing as freedom for any living thing. There is no freedom, only responsibility, only the responsibility of each for all. A poet said that, neither White nor Black. His wife and three children (your children, again) were burned to death in their house decades ago, when they spoke up against Somebody’s racism and privilege, through which their once wide and free lands had all been taken. But that fire must have been an accident, or a petty feud, or their own fault. That can’t happen here.

And yet the past is full of such acts; that’s why there is no past.

Over both cities arches the sky. One sky. The sky is all around us touching us all at every point, flowing among us like a single blood, but we cannot feel it; we have forgotten it. And so the sky seems far away. It does not mean much. The screens are closer, and we can make them show us only what we want to see.

But storms are coming; bigger storms. Storms will always be coming now, bigger and harder. And every time they come, they will take us unawares.

Until?

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