Freshman year of college I was a Republican hardliner and Pentecostal Christian. I had just graduated from an Appalachian public school where you could sometimes find teachers’ names written inside a textbook cover under the heading “issued to.” I had spent much of my childhood in backwoods revival services, in evangelical youth groups, trips to praise and worship services in stadium-sized venues. I called global warming a hoax and Al Gore a baby killer. I had come down out of the mountains with a wad of snuff in my lip and driving a high-mileage Ford. Somehow, I believed I would be a writer—not just a writer, but one who felt he’d saved himself from falling victim to lies through an uncomplicated narrative of persistent belief. I sensed truth was a fragile thing and once found, could only be kept alive through abidance. I was certain the new Iraqi war and all that ugliness could only be lost if we decided we wanted to lose it.
I had been rejected from the University of Pittsburgh but allowed to attend one of its satellite campuses in a suburb an hour outside the city. The campus had two classroom buildings that were situated along what brochures called a “creek” but was instantly recognized by all as a crick. It was clogged with fallen tree limbs and tires. Most of the sixteen hundred students commuted from the city, but some five hundred lived on campus. The dorms were a brick apartment complex formerly used as low-income housing. The walls were patched, the door knobs broken, the concrete floors poured unevenly. I started arguments with the Pittsburgh kids, legacy democrats, and was not well liked. Outside for a cigarette I asked them for a light then attacked them ad hominem the first chance I got. Democrats distributed wealth, which was socialism, and the difference between socialism and communism was so slight to be negligible. I regarded anyone who disparaged the Bush administration or the war on terror as a coward and a fool. America and Christianity were narratives of faith and strength and I could not tolerate unbelief.
Based on my entrance exam scores, my advisor registered me for a math class that was too basic to count for college credit and a remedial English composition course. The composition course consisted of learning the difference between dependent and independent clauses and how you could connect them. The instructor was thorough with drafts, but I found his lectures and assigned readings to be overtly political. He seemed to me to be a member of a large group of Americans who were impotent and angry because they had lost the argument. Their vision of peace had been a delusion, a fantasy. It was 2004 and we no longer lived in the cushy Clinton years, we lived in the valley of the shadow of death.
I wrote earnest essays. My drafts were returned with comma splices circled and frustrated marginalia which advised that I consider my topics more slowly. I knew to be suspicious of the academy and the people it housed, but I also had to acknowledge the instructor, pro-America or not, knew a good deal more about writing than I did. And for reasons I couldn’t explain, I wanted very badly to be good at writing. It had something to do with the size of the world and how it thrilled me. There was a big narrative going on out there: tanks were running fast through the desert, G.I.s were marching bearded men across the sand at gunpoint, our president was evoking the name of God. The world had become clear and palpable. There was a battle between the righteous and the deceived. I understood the truth and wanted to be able to stir the hearts of men with it.
The task, it seemed, was learning where the commas went. Early that October, my instructor assigned George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant.” I waited till Saturday to do my work, when the Pittsburgh kids had gone back to Penn Hills or North hills for the weekend and it was quiet. It was a warm day that was just going to dusk. At the open kitchen window, I sat down to read through the essay. Orwell’s circumstances confused me at first. It hadn’t yet occurred to me that British occupied foreign lands into the 20th century, or that they had been in Burma. Or that there had been a place called Burma. I didn’t know about British India and had never seen the word Raj before. If asked, I would have been hard pressed to provide an accurate definition of imperialism. This is to say that it was news to me that changing a nation’s government and culture through military force wasn’t at all a new idea.
I continued. The essay was narrative: the story of a British police officer (Orwell) who was hated and jeered by the Burmese locals. One day he learns of an elephant that has gone mad with “must” and broken its chains. The elephant had already destroyed huts and overturned a van. Uncertain of what to do but curious, Orwell sets off with a gun he knows is too small. Accurate information is hard to find; some locals claim the elephant went one way, some say the opposite, some said they hadn’t heard of any elephant. But when Orwell finds a corpse ground into the dirt, things escalate. He sends for a larger gun, a crowd of locals gathers wanting to see a demonstration of power and so Orwell becomes lead player in a piece of theatre. He does not want to shoot the elephant, but he feels the force of the thousands of faces behind him, watching. Orwell grasps in that moment the futility of Britain’s domination in the east.
“When the white man turns tyrant,” Orwell writes, “it is his own freedom he destroys.” The elephant is shot through many times but dies slowly and its bones are picked over for meat. This was not my first encounter with truth, but it was my first encounter with this kind of truth. The essay was a twenty minute read, but afterward the eighteen-year-old me was agitated, unnerved, ready to condemn Orwell for not being a braver man. I’d been raised in a culture that believed the world would be much simpler if the elite left quit trying to make it complicated. But here was an essay written by a troop on the ground in a seventy-year old occupation, who acknowledged the systems of control were far too complicated to remain wise, let alone noble.
Nothing changed for me immediately. I’d still vote for George W. Bush later that fall; still accuse democrats of being secret communists. But the subtlety of Orwell’s perception, his ability to recognize contradiction, irony, absurdity, had dug in somewhere deep and given me an intellectual inferiority complex. The writing was incisive, devastating without being pretentious or alienating. I trusted his telling of it, his voice. He says in the essay he knew the proper thing to do would be to approach the elephant and gauge its behavior. “But I also knew I would do no such thing,” he writes. “I was a poor shot with a rifle and the ground was soft mud into which one would stick at every step.” I was a hunter and familiar with being a poor shot. I could see the elephant in the distance, feel the crowd behind me, watch myself load the shell in the chamber, my hands shaking. I understood Orwell was a man who did not want to act rashly, who considered each party involved, knew there was no real urgency in killing the elephant, but killed it anyway because the inherent inadequacy of the individual in a world of larger, wealthier, more powerful forces.
The fall that year was chilly and the winter was bitter. Come December, I got an A- in the composition class. In April, the first images from Abu Ghraib were broadcast, but now I said nothing. I smoked quietly off by myself. I kept reading and thinking, the fragments I collected connected themselves into larger and more cohesive systems. Eventually I moved to a different city and got another degree. Other essays had more immediate effect on me but none have had one more profound. What happened while I read Orwell’s essay eight years ago was small. I wouldn’t understand it for years, but I was humbled. In the span of a few thousand words over a half-century old, the world got bigger for me in a quiet way. I couldn’t have been prepared for the nature of the truth once it arrived. I thought if I were to ever be indoctrinated, I’d sense it, be able to stop myself from growing diseased. It would be a sudden battle I would know how to fight. I was ready for war. But then, in the quiet, came a small thing.