The Oasis is Burning

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2.3 - Root Causes

The University of Kansas has a history with radicals. Back in the high age of leftist agitation, the Weathermen torched the main union as the climax of a week of destructive anarchy. OSIS had every reason to assume a reprisal, so the knot of goons surrounding the building was eminently predictable. Somehow it had slipped my mind, and I found myself wandering around an occupied campus searching for a back way into the building. Either the OSIS men on the road didn’t see me or didn’t consider a speed-frenzied journalist to be too much of a threat.

The sidepaths led into a grove of trees, a tranquil and thoroughly goon-free location. It would have been a fine time to take a stroll and forget about the encompassing police state, but the last thing I needed to do was offend that OSIS buffoon who would already be aching to turn the dogs loose on me. The Kansas Union was in sight, its rear entrance unsecured. With some luck, I could make it to the debrief in time for a turkey club and a propaganda show.

Rounding the Spencer Museum, I caught the faint odor of acrylics and heard the whisper of an aerosol dispenser. There were two of them, roughly college-aged, both dark-complected, both sporting fatigues and black Timberlands. One of them, a man, seemed to be standing guard (and doing a magnificent job); he had a swimmer’s build and the bulge of a holster on his hip. The woman was much shorter and so lightly built that she would have vanished into the sun if she turned sideways. She was kneeling by the building, neatly hidden behind her overstuffed messenger bag, her work just visible over her shoulder - the phrase “Liberty dies where Silence prevails” in an arresting shade of red.

The man noticed me first. “Hey, the hell you doing here?” He fumbled for his sidearm, fighting against the strap on the holster. “Take another step and you’re a corpse!”

“Relax, kid,” I said, showing him my empty hands. “I’m not with OSIS, I’m not with the state.”

“The hell you say.” By now he had his gun out, trained in my general direction. His finger wasn’t on the trigger. “If you’re not a state pig, then who are you?”

“Chill, Darius, I think I know this guy.” The woman stepped away from her statement. “You’re a reporter, right? You covered the Election Integrity thing?”

“Among other things,” I said.

“They let you wander around here?” she said.

“Nope, slipped away,” I said. “And I need to get back before they figure that out, so if you’re going to shoot me, put one in my arm so I can still walk.”

“No one’s shooting anyone.” She pushed away her companion’s firearm. “Look, my name’s Shayla and this is Darius. We’re with the Union for Justice.”

“Explains the piece,” I said.

“It’s not what you think. Mostly what we do is stuff like this.” Shayla glanced back at her tag.

“She’s been doing it since the start,” said Darius, who’d greatly lightened the mood by holstering his gun. “She even hit the Integrity building.”

“‘Freedom is not Commodity’?” I said. “A truly significant political act.”

“No need to be sarcastic.” Shayla took a step closer. “You want a real scoop?”

“Why I’m here,” I said.

“Good.” Shayla returned the paint can to her obese bag and dug through the contents. “Those guys on campus don’t represent us. They’re...I don’t know, breakaways or something.”

“If they’re even UFJ at all.” Darius straightened up so much that he gained an inch or two, his chest a foot out as his voice hit an angry crescendo. “I keep telling everyone, that siege is a false flag by the racists in Topeka and Washington to throw dirt on a movement that they see -”

“Darius, I told you not to talk like that with people around!” Shayla handed me a slim book with a totally plain brown cover, not a name or title to be seen. “That’s the mind behind the movement, right there. It was written by a professor right here. You can keep it.”

I opened the book. “Theo Jagunjagun? This is your intellectual leader?”

“Don’t believe what you’ve heard, he’s brilliant. Read it, it’ll change your way of thinking.” Shayla gave Darius a light shove. “Come on, we gotta move. God willing, we’ll see you again.”

The two of them were gone before I had a chance to respond. I didn’t need any correction on Prof. Jagunjagun or his beliefs. I’d met him once before.

It was less than a day into the crisis in Lawrence that the name Theophilus Jagunjagun surfaced in connection, and I immediately knew that the shining stars in the media had already forgotten their old narrative. The new narrative was spectacular in its own way, both in its lurid flourishes and the speed at which it grew. If you listened closely on a still day, you could hear ten thousand researchers, writers and bloggers furiously searching the aether for some undiscovered hint of radicalism.

The media smear campaign follows a predictable timeline, starting from the time that a new talking point infiltrates the apparatus. Hour two: The first bullshit rumors stream out of some octogenarian’s inbox. Hour five: A number of juicy (if dubious) pull quotes and carefully edited clips reach the surface. Hour seven: Afraid of being left behind, journos report on rumors they found online, carefully appending that old media Miranda “Some people are saying...” Hour eleven: The talking heads start testing their log lines, complete with sexy exciting graphics. Hour twelve: Interviews with people who don’t really have anything to add. Hour sixteen: Retractions of everything that was said in the previous fifteen hours. Hour seventeen: Roundtable - “The Media - Why Do We Keep Fucking Up?”

The circus surrounding this anthropologist followed that timeline to the last notch. Rumor was that Theo was part of some Black Panther dynasty, raised to hate white people and cops. Bloggers unearthed a number of scary black quotes from this scary black man that later turned out to have been spoken by a different, often fictional scary black man. A kid who looked like he was coming off a three-day tequila bender claimed that Theo gave him a F because he wouldn’t “confess the sins of his privilege.” That line really should have made someone suspicious, but by the time they found out that the kid flunked because he routinely showed up to class intoxicated, the narrative had already taken root: Theo Jagunjagun, militant black radical, intellectual leader of the Union for Justice which had clearly absorbed his hostility.

But years back he had a very different narrative: Theo Jagunjagun, hedonistic crank, false shepherd leading impressionable youths into an amoral abyss. That was the state of things when I went to interview him at the start of my career. The prof’s real passion was controversy, and he had a special knack for it. He loved manipulating the press and jousting with the puritans that he had encountered over a lifetime in the Midwest. He generated a few outraged phone calls with his self-published tome Deeper Travelogue, an extensive pharmacopoea of the mind-affecting substances he had tried, many of which included research chemicals he appropriated from the medical division. But the show-stopper was a class he offered on arcane sexual practices of the ancient world. Among the exhibits for the class with still photographs and video (allegedly commissioned by Prof. Jagunjagun, or even featuring him depending on who you ask) reproducing some of the acts as well as an extensive collection of “personal exploration artifacts” that comprised the more phallic objects Theo had unearthed in his journeys - “Flintstone dildos,” as one editorial so poetically put it.

In the end, it was all just a cheap attempt by the indignation brigade to feed their outrage jones and generate a few very moral dollars for the directors of the show. The most graphic allegations against Prof. Jagunjagun proved to be completely false, and students who actually attended his classes (as opposed to the ones the media interviewed, who had glanced at the building while the classes were in session) had nothing but glowing things to say. The class was outre but by no means sleazy.

It was at the height of the controversy that I visited the Prof at his Lenexa home for what he called a “salon” with some other academics and intellectuals. I had mixed feelings about that. On one hand, staying out of Lawrence meant avoiding the Bible-thumping protesters (all seven of them - it was an internet outrage). On the other hand, any reporter concerned over his sainted reputation would have to balk at strolling into a den of depravity. I pictured opium den chic, a diabolic house of ill repute with crimson light bulbs, narcotizing fumes and two prostitutes on every sofa. When I saw instead an archetypical academic’s home, with rare books, inscrutable pieces of art and two old men on every sofa.

The Prof himself was perhaps the least threating individual I’d ever seen in my life, a small man with a head of coarse, prematurely gray hair and a spare grin. Not even forty, he had the bearing and dignity of a man of another age, an aura reinforced by the bow tie and throwback double-breasted suit.

“Mr. Atticus, make yourself at home.” Prof. Jagunjagun gestured to a high-backed chair across from him. “You will have to excuse the company, but you shouldn’t feel restrained at all. There are no secrets here.”

“That’s good. So how’s the sex and drugs with teenagers business going?”

Prof. Jagunjagun released a reedy little laugh. “A good reporter gets right to the point, doesn’t he?” The other academics laughed along with him.

“Just a little joke.”

“As I assumed. I’m sure you must be a little nervous, and I’m sure the reefer didn’t help as much as you had hoped.”

I had made the classic junior high mistake and failed to conceal the odor. In my defense, I had not expected the aroma of cannabis to stand out amid the snorting and screwing that was supposed to be happening there.

“There’s been some misunderstanding,” continued the Prof. “I can see why people cast me as a hedonist, but in truth I seldom find the time for wanton earthly pleasures. My writing and teaching are more about addressing areas of life that few people wish to explore beyond the surface.”

“Narcotics and weird sex?”

“Why do some people insist on escaping into their own minds? Why do some people seek the erotic in the grotesque? Civilized society reacts with disgust, but that same civilized society tacitly accepts other people downing vodka tonics and falling into bed with strangers at the bar. We even romanticize it.”

“It sounds like you want to shock people.”

“I only seek to ease them through the initial shock. I was born to help people understand their own natures, and often that means taking them to terrifying new places, if only for purposes of acclimation.”

“So does this mean you’re over the drugs and porn?”

Prof. Jagunjagun laughed again, though this time there was a faint edge of derision behind it. “Very nearly. Actually, if this can be off the record, I may still have some illicit substances on the premises. Somewhat aged by now, but potent enough to get us in trouble.”

One of the other professors pulled an ornate wooden box from one of the bookshelves and opened it to reveal a sizable cache of dried psilocybin mushrooms. I promptly helped myself to an epic dose, assuming that the others were going to join in. They did not. With the room fading off into the far horizon, I suddenly had ample time to ponder the Prof’s pronouncements. At the time, there was only one lesson to learn: Never take psychotropics with academics unless they go first.

It wasn’t until I heard his name in connection with the UFJ that I realized something else: With all the uncomfortable topics Prof. Jagunjagun, he never mentioned race. Perhaps the time wasn’t ripe.

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