by Carrie Fountain
A few months after 9/11, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dale Maharidge headed west from his home in New York City and wound his way through America’s heartland, conducting hundreds of interviews with folks from everywhere along the political spectrum, covering thousands of miles, and documenting what he saw as a forming swell of discontent: fear, racial hatred, economic desperation, violence both implied and actual. It was a great and complicated divide he sought to investigate as he entered the heart of the country while it reeled from terror attacks, plastered itself with the flag, and hunkered down in preparation for war.
Homeland, his most recent book with photos by Michael Williamson, is the product of this investigation. Here, from inside a precarious moment of American history, comes a voice devoted to the art and craft of both investigative journalism and compelling narrative. Maharidge tells stories that were all but forgotten by the mainstream media after 9/11—stories of mosques stormed, lives threatened, livelihoods devastated, civil liberties thwarted—the very stories that tell us what we most need to know about ourselves right now.
Maharidge is nothing if not complete in his analysis of the great American chasm as he moves from anecdote to story to news item. Only after building a foundational argument strong enough for the metaphor does he enter into an eerie-to-terrifying comparison of present-day America and pre-WWII Weimar Germany. Don’t worry: He steers way clear of tired, erroneous comparisons to Hitler. Instead he focuses on the path that led Germany to such dangerous nationalism: the economic rift the country faced after WWI, with a government playing up to the rich while poverty became widespread and a fearful public was further tangled in the safety net of its own patriotism, stoked by voices at the extreme. Here he explains by comparison the great and dangerous paradox of our current America: that those among us made most vulnerable by their government’s policies (think NAFTA, think tax cuts for the rich) are often those who, in perceiving their own powerlessness, most enthusiastically endorse the power, reckless or not, such a government can wield. “The word homeland,” Maharidge writes, “rapidly became a commonly used synonym for the United States among the Bush set.” It was a word, he writes, “‘so redolent of the German ‘heimat,’ as noted by the writer and editor Ton Engelhardt, a reference that was probably lost entirely on the people who coined the Department of Homeland Security and the Homeland Security Act.”
He develops a strong argument for what he considers to be a misunderstanding about our current, polarized America. As he says in the book’s prelude:
What happened on 9/11 was not a genesis, but an amplifier of unease that had long been building. Before that day we were already a nation in which executives burned shareholders’ money on $2 million toga birthday parties, while men and women who worked Wal-Mart jobs pinched pennies and still ended up begging for charity food for their children at month’s end.
Homeland is arranged in a way that makes use of its meta-narratives, the people and places to which Maharidge returns throughout the book. He focuses on civil liberty issues through the story of Katie Sierra, a student first intent on forming an anarchy group at her West Virginia high school, then cast out, threatened, and consequently made both famous and disliked throughout the state. Her most heinous crime: wearing a t-shirt to school on which she’d written, “When I saw the dead and dying Afghani children on TV, I felt a newly recovered sense of national security.” Within this, the most powerfully told of all the stories in the book, lies an eye-opening investigation into the economically depressed, insulated, rebel flag-waving culture that Sierra rubs the wrong way, those proud and paradoxical folks whose hearts and minds—and truck windows—Howard Dean thought he’d win over last fall. Maharidge himself wants, as earnestly as possible, to understand the community’s reaction to Sierra, and uses the response his own presence seems to illicit in town as a point of entry into his analysis: “…in Sissonville…anytime I walked into a store or restaurant, the place stopped—forks midair, coffee pouring halted—all eyes icily on me….”
He goes on to break down the region’s economic-social-psychological history, beginning with an analysis of the area’s dwindling manufacturing economy, and concluding with a kind of emotional summary from a man whose town is now plagued by floods caused by increased runoff from the mining practice of mountaintop removal: “‘We always get fucked.”‘ Maharidge concludes:
In Sissonville that attitude finds its expression in the Confederate flag, which has morphed into a talismanic symbol that guards the town and announces: no minorities. No gays. No pinkos. No “other” of any kind. Nothing that ever changes the way we are or the way we think, and that’s always to obey God, our commander in chief, to go to work, perhaps in the chemical factories, and never to question anything that goes on there, either.
He spends time honing in on racial hatred in America, especially as directed toward Muslims, and examines the underlying fuel for such vitriol and violence, exploring the way that differences in faith act to generalize this kind of racial tension:
It wasn’t that Muslims were simply the new American “niggers,” the most hated and feared of minorities, for fear of blacks has…most often been individualized for non-blacks, as captured by the Willie Horton stereotype of the black man who will rape or rob a single white person—not a group of black men who would fly planes into towers.
From here, having laid a strong foundation, Maharidge moves the argument toward a comparison of our American moment with that of Weimar Germany, training his easy, accessible narrative to serve a heavy, frightening rhetoric with considerable success. He only undercuts his argument when, in a quest to sound measured, he repeatedly asks his reader to “take Hitler out of the main picture and look at the history.” I wonder: Can we take Hitler out of the main picture and still look at the history? I don’t know. I don’t think Maharidge knows, either. Thus, these waters are muddied from the start.
Taken as a whole, the narratives in Homeland teach us about ourselves and allow us to begin to understand those whom we might otherwise have little desire or willingness to understand: white supremacists, people storming mosques. One of the most complicated and subtle anecdotes comes late in the book, as Maharidge, on the streets of New York City, follows a group called ANSWER, an amalgam of left-leaning activists, as they march in protest on the eve of the war with Afghanistan. As he follows, he chronicles the near-violent reaction the group receives from people on the street. At one point Maharidge finds himself in the crossfire as a Latino bystander begins shouting at an older Latino activist. “Fucking bomb ’em!” the younger man screams, and the activist yells back, “Lower class Hispanics are going to war, brother!” Later, after the two men engage in a conversation about capitalism, Maharidge takes a moment to talk to each of them. The activist was certain he’d made headway with the other, younger Latino, saying, “Yeah, he understands.” Yet, when Maharidge asks him, the younger man admits he didn’t understand a word the man had said. When Maharidge points out to the Latino activist that he’d seen no working class marchers, and asks how they will reach the working class, the man says, “We will engage them in dialogue.” “How?” Maharidge asks. The man answers, “Like we’re doing now.”
Homeland reads like a novel at times, with clear narrative and a nicely omnipotent narrator. Maharidge is especially gifted in the art of listening—his most convincing arguments, as well as his most disturbing, are those that come from the mouths of people he interviews. Each of the four books that compromise Homeland are separated by short sections called “News Diaries.” These stand in stark contrast to the rest of the book, sometimes reading like hate mail, sometimes like bad slam poetry:
Atlas didn’t shrugAtlas kicked assand when Atlas spokeeveryone listened
Essentially the News Diaries act as confessionals, moments when we’re allowed to see the internal angst of the field reporter. And while many of the images therein serve nicely as snapshots of an America confused, overall the Diaries are a distraction. Furthermore, though the photo essay by Michael Williamson, which begins the book, is certainly haunting, the photos only rarely serve Maharidge’s text, and are at worst confusing, illuminating specific scenes never mentioned in the text. Simply put, what’s most remarkable about Homeland is its tone: There’s both a passion and a distance to the author’s reporting that is both honorable and honest. He drives his point home with humanity, not with vitriol. Toward the end of the book, Maharidge subtly and eloquently sums up his journalistic philosophy as he explains why he’s never visited the World Trade Center site:
I tell my students to practice “Star Trek” journalism,” that is, go where no one else is going. Not only is it a waste to be one of the pack; what is happening off to the side is often the best story.
Indeed, after 9/11 the entire rest of the United States was suddenly off to the side, a great din roiling under the too-loud voices of shock-jocks and home-spun stories of patriotism. It’s a good thing for us Dale Maharidge went there, and listened.
Carrie Fountain is a poet and freelance writer living in Austin.