October 13, 2003
John Walker Lindh in Black and White

Lindh.gifLast month The East Bay Express, a Northern California alt-weekly, ran an article called Black Like Me, one of the best pieces I've read about "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh. Written by James Best, the article is weak on original reporting but impressively rich with exegeses of Lindh's postings on various usenet newsgroups (alt.rap, rec.music.hip-hop, and alt.religion.Islam) back in the early- and mid-nineties. What emerges is a an autobiography-in-progress of a very unreliable narrator: a conflicted white teenager in love with hip-hop, embarrassed by his own privilege, curious about Islam and the Five Percent, and moving with surprising ease from Public Enemy fan to Public Enemy number one.

Best is wise enough to use Lindh's own words to tell us all we need to know about the white kid who longed to be Black and could be online, longed to be a Muslim and could be one in Afghanistan, and who longed for a heroic life like that of Malcolm X and can now have it (in his own mind) by memorizing the entire Koran as he serves out his prison sentence for aiding the Taliban.

Here's Best shooting down the conservative party-line that Lindh is a merely a product of overly tolerant hippie parents:
Critics who have portrayed [Lindh's] behavior as the inevitable result of being reared in tolerant Marin County seem to have missed the obvious: Lindh's actions were themselves a rebuke of clichd Marin liberalism. He not only implicated it explicitly, but determinedly chased its apparent opposites. In the end, Lindh himself is the most virulent critic of his permissive upbringing, and his critique is far more vehement than the stale arsenal of gibes about the '60s wielded by his conservative commentators.

Here's Best on the way Lindh misunderstood and simplified African-Americans as he idealized them:
It's fascinating that Lindh's newsgroups texts, as deeply tinted as they were with black nationalist thought, did not once refer to the political or economic existence of African Americans outside of his obsession with the twin specters of the black "sellout" and the racist and empowered white. He was, despite it all, an upper-middle-class white kid from a suburban remove, and his imagination repeatedly failed him when it came to the concrete conditions that inspired the culture of resistance he so deeply identified with.

And here's Best at his, well, best, placing Lindh squarely in the context that fits him best America:
For most, he's already a half-forgotten footnote of the war on terrorism. His significance, if he is to possess any, lies in the spectacular way in which he was both a product of the American suburbs and a pilgrim of its apparent opposites. Which is why using the word "traitor" to describe Lindh -- who never lifted his hand toward an American soldier -- is not only incorrect but bitterly ironic. In his obsession with race, his longing to transcend it, and irrepressible will toward self-invention, John Walker Lindh could only have been American.

One last thought: I recently read a mostly-forgotten little comic novel by Cyra McFadden called The Serial: A Year in Marin County. It was written in 1976 when Lindh wasn't even a glimmer in father's (then Washington DC-based) eye, but the depiction of therapized, self-involved, Est-spouting, Me Generation proto-yuppies struck me as prescient to the Lindh case. (I'm not the only one: Duncan Campbell had the same thought in The Guardian last year.) Here's one passage from a chapter called "Dealing with the whole child" that, for obvious reasons, reminded me of John Walker Lindh:
It just went to show that intellectual heavies could be beautiful in spite of all those smarts. Naomi, for instance, was a model mother. Unlike Martha herself, she never shouted at her kids, never blew her cool with them and never came on like a parent figure. Look at the way she was now persuading her youngster, John Muir Maginnis, to stop swinging on Martha's drapes.
'John-John,' Naomi was saying, 'I shouldn't engage in that form of activity if I were you. Your actions might be subject to misinterpretation, don't you agree?'
John-John stared at her balefully. 'I don't give a shit,' he said, and instead began to beat Tampala, Martha's four-year-old daughter, over the head with his Playskool carpenter's awl. It was just amazing the way children worked out their hostilities among themselves if you didn't interfere with their natural instincts.

Sure, that description falls right into the wringing hands of those conservatives who blame Marin's hot-tubbing liberals for Lindh's conversion to tubthumping Taliban, but maybe the kid was merely working out his hostilities in his own unique way and found himself subject to misinterpretation.

Posted in a Grave fashion.

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