Late one Saturday morning in 1990 under the skeleton-bleaching California sun, I motored through a crumbled, hilly, ashen section of East LA looking to see if any of the Hicks Boys Stoners were around to sell me some weed. Named after East LA’s Hicks Avenue, they were a loosely amalgamated gang of longhaired Mexican metalheads who shunned traditional cholo gang culture’s aesthetic trappings in favor of Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez-styled muerte obsessions, Satan worship, and generally aimless nihilism.
A few weeks earlier, I had written a cover story about the Hicks Boys for the Los Angeles Reader, a now-defunct free alt-weekly largely distributed in West LA. The magazine’s publisher was a short, pie-faced man with a voice so high-pitched one would suspect he was mainlining estrogen. He was slick-bald on top with a horseshoe rim of quarter-inch grey stubble around the sides and a Pixy Stix-thin footlong ponytail hanging limply in the back. Merely describing his ponytail tells you all you need to know about his politics.
The publisher didn’t like my article about the Hicks Boys. Surveying the pre-press galleys, he sniffed, “Why are you writing about these losers, anyway? They just come off like scumbags.” I tried explaining that if he’d grown up in East LA housing projects where police-chopper lights were poking into his bedroom every night and shirtless, machete-wielding cholos had terrorized his barrio since infancy, he may have had more empathy. (I still believe that.)
But he wasn’t convinced. He said he’d hired me six months earlier to give the magazine some “edge,” but he hadn’t expected a rusty, blood-covered prison shank. Shortly after my Hicks Boys story appeared, he fired me.
After skimming through the Hicks Boys’ turf a few times on that late Saturday morning, I finally spotted one of their members near a graffiti-spackled laundromat where they frequently congregated. He was threading a needle and preparing to tattoo himself.
At the time—I was 28—my political ideas were little more than the accumulated, half-digested buzzing meme-hive of left-leaning pop culture and far-left academic indoctrination. From all the Norman Lear sitcoms of my youth up to all my avowedly communist professors in journalism school, the good guys and bad guys had been clearly delineated for me. I had been encouraged to “question authority,” but never the authority of major media or academic consensus. I perceived them to be objective scientists rather than evangelical ideologues.
Liberal Psych 101 subverted the dominant paradigm until nothing made sense. It taught that cockroaches are equivalent to butterflies. It preached that success was a sign of evil and that failure was an emblem of virtue. It saw something noble in losing rather than winning. It didn’t seem so keen about “leveling the playing field” as it was on perverting natural law until they forced the game to end in a sudden-death two-overtimes tie. It published endless treatises on deconstruction without making a peep about how to reconstruct everything after destroying it.
Then as now, the left preached a Gospel of innate cognitive and physical equality among all social groups. What it did not preach was an equality of character. White people generally, and rich white males in particular, were depicted as morally defective, probably by birth.
Even though a white male, I dutifully absorbed and assented to the liberal blueprint. Journalism degree in tow, I set about to right historical wrongs. I appointed myself an advocacy journalist who would defend the poor against the rich and the weak against the strong.
In many cases, I didn’t realize I’d be defending the stupid against the smart.
Ironically, it was precisely this hands-on advocacy journalism that led me to abandon leftist thought entirely. It was a long and painful process, like an old car where the parts start to go and then one day the engine finally throws a rod. One experience after the other led to more chinks in my ideological armor than there were Chinks in Mao’s Red Army. Against my better wishes, I found I do not have the inexhaustible capacity for cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias that most leftists seem to possess.
While researching an article about wealth inequality, I came across a chart that showed the average corporate CEO’s IQ was 153, while the average manual laborer’s IQ was below a hundred. Something squirmed inside me. I didn’t want to hear this.
While reading Timothy Leary’s Jail Notes in preparation for interviewing him, I ran across a passage where Leary describes how the Black Panthers held him hostage in Algeria. I resisted what this implied. I didn’t want to know that blacks could act like slave owners, too.
While immersing myself in Orange County’s Vietnamese gang culture for a Playboy article, I was continually impressed with how these war-shattered Asians had come here penniless but owned businesses and mansions within a decade. This didn’t jibe with my belief that blacks and Mexicans were their equals.
While interviewing white nationalist Tom Metzger, I thought I’d pinned him with a real “Gotcha!” question: “You’re not big on equality, are you?” Metzger said he wasn’t, and neither was anyone in power. “When they say ‘All men are created equal,’ I laugh,” he told me, “because nobody in power believes that.” My guts told me that Metzger was probably right on that count. Maybe the idea of equality had substituted for religion as a modern opiate of the masses. Maybe it was a rancid fiction peddled by people who felt superior to everyone.
After I’d interviewed a homeless man on Hollywood’s streets, he kept calling me and asking me for money. Since he was ambulatory and relatively young, I started to think that maybe he was only a victim of his own laziness.
After interviewing one famous rapper after the next, I had to concede that most of them were as dumb as tree stumps. I also had to admit that many aspects of the black culture I’d worshiped from afar were dumber than a box of rocks carved from stone. And though I’d thought they’d been exploited and kept down by capitalism, this didn’t stop rappers from posing on record covers fanning themselves with $100 bills and wearing gold chains down to their balls. And the idea that their plight in America was solely the white man’s fault couldn’t account for the fact that conditions were far worse back in the Motherland than they were anywhere in Compton.
It wasn’t long before my entire ideological edifice came crashing to the ground.
So there I was on an East LA street corner, trying to buy weed from one of the Stoner gang members over whom I’d lost my job trying to defend. Like I said, I was still in my twenties and still green enough to think I was doing him a favor by bringing a little cash into his ’hood. As he threaded his tattoo needle and avoided eye contact, he icily informed me that he and the rest of the Hicks Boys were pissed about my article. He said I’d misquoted him, even though he was wrong—I had everything on tape and I’d quoted him correctly word-for-word.
He said I was lucky the rest of his gang was still asleep, because the minute they all woke up, they would mob me and beat my white ass into the ground.
It occurred to me that the only reason he wasn’t a large-scale oppressor was a simple lack of opportunity. If he’d grown up rich, he’d be every bit as corrupt as the faceless country-clubbers I’d been trained to hate. So instead of manipulating the currency, he stuck to petty robbery and lopsided beatdowns.
Even if I’d fought him one-on-one, this was a public corner in East LA, and within moments I’d be fighting all of La Raza. So I got back in my car and shouted, “The reason you’re stuck here is because you’re too stupid to do anything else!”
To this day, I don’t know whether I’d always felt that about him or whether I suddenly realized it as he threaded the needle and threatened my life.
I was not prejudiced, which implies passing judgment before reviewing the evidence. I was now postjudiced—I had reviewed the evidence and concluded that many people simply weren’t worth saving.
As I peeled away in my 1968 Cougar from that dirty street corner, I left my leftist beliefs at his dirty feet. His Kampf wasn’t Mein. Power may corrupt, but powerlessness can make you a nasty asshole, too. Spend enough time around “the people,” and you realize it’s a fool’s errand trying to defend them. I realized he, and so many like him, had no potential waiting to be realized. For the first time in my life, I also realized there’s a reason the Third World came in third.