Last night was the Big Words reading … which means that I went out at lunch yesterday and wrote something to read. Seriously. I couldn’t think of how to approach what I wanted to write, couldn’t think of how to talk about all my talking and thinking about schadenfreude and the realization that I couldn’t sustain the feeling for more than a moment. The pressure of being only a few hours away from a reading can be powerful, however. So — while enjoying some truly yummy broccoli and edamame soup — I wrote this:
I tend to be a Weltschmerz girl at heart. Weltschmerz, to my mind, is the emotional opposite of the “damaged pleasure” that is schadenfreude. Instead of pleasure in another’s misfortune, us schmerz-y folks feel more pain. To be exact, we are made sad when we see the reality of world awfulness in comparison to the kinder, gentler world we hold as an ideal.
But then there was February 11th at Malheur, the end of the armed take-over of that wildlife refuge, and I was hit by a twinge of … of … what was that almost giddy sensation? Ah. Schadenfreude. There it was, salty-sweet and satiating.
As plenty of folks did, I followed the story of the armed white terrorists who rode into Burns, Oregon and took over the federal site. The Bundy brothers and their followers generated in me a choking anger with their wanton display of white privilege. Because that was what we were watching: a bunch of self-important white folks big-bellying around, secure in the knowledge that their whiteness would allow them to do just about whatever damn thing they wanted — hold press conferences, make demands, use revered Native land for latrines. White privilege. Text-book example. As I posted on Facebook early in their 41-day incursion: “Tell me a group of armed Black militants would have been allowed two weeks to hang out after occupying anything — a federal wildlife refuge, a 7-11, a community garden, a home of their own on Osage Avenue in Philadelphia.”
Black and brown folks, armed with grief and righteous indignation get called terrorists when they protest the killing of an unarmed child, but the Bundy Klan — yes, with a “K” — are called “patriots,” are called a “militia.” Law enforcement meets with them to negotiate, announces the determination to get everyone home without firing a shot. While police officers take less than three seconds to assess Tamir Rice’s threat level before gunning down that baby as he played in a neighborhood park.
A choking anger. A vise grip of fury, despair, and disgust closing around my throat.
I have no interest in being an armed militant. I would, however, like to be able to feel at ease walking in the street when there are police officers around.
But let us get us back to the big word, back to schadenfreude. For all the brave talk and bluster, I was interested — though not at all surprised — to see how quickly Ammon Bundy told his followers to give up and go home once there was some gunfire. These people had proclaimed their willingness to fight, to die for their right … to land that hadn’t ever been theirs, in a place where none of them lived and no residents had invited them or their guns and attitude.
They were so ready to fight … as long as all they had to do was talk about fighting. The moment some actual fighting started, all they wanted was to strike their tents and get home. Instead, they were met with arrest. And when Papa Bundy jetted in, thinking he had something of value to offer, the authorities grabbed up his entitled ass and threw him in jail, too.
And there it was: schadenfreude. The powerful desire to poke at the Malheur insurgents through their jail cell bars and laugh in their faces, to ask: “How’s that privilege working for you now?”
But that’s as long as my dip into schadenfreude lasts. Because before I can even fully imagine myself asking my snarky question, reality pokes me. Because what’s actually true is that their privilege is working perfectly well, and will continue to.
Forty-one days they vacationed at Malheur, lived on land to which they had neither claim nor connection. In Harris Neck, Georgia, unarmed descendants of enslaved Africans moved to take back land the government had deeded to their ancestors. Three days later, they were forcibly removed, dragged to waiting vans and arrested. Three days. No peaceful negotiations, no elevated titles like “patriot.” The Harris Neck claimants were denounced as “squatters.”
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. arrested on his front porch. Ramarley Graham shot to death in his bathroom. Aiyana Stanley-Jones shot to death as she slept on the sofa in her living room.
I had a moment’s flirtation with schadenfreude, but that pendulum took a painfully short swing before sending me careering back to Weltschmerz. The Bundys and their crew might pay some small price for their violence-mongering. Will their actions change anything, wake this country up to the threat represented by armed, angry, selfish, and self-important white people who place themselves above the law? I won’t hold my breath. But if that could happen, maybe I’d be able to enjoy more than a nanosecond of the tamarind candy of schadenfreude.
It’s the Slice of Life Story Challenge! Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the rest of the slicers are up to … and to post the link to your own slice!