“Do you have that book Bomb the Suburbs?”
In considering William Upski Wimsatt’s new book Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs, I had to go back to its beginnings. Asking amongst my friends was telling.
“I do, but I think it’s in a box at my parents’ house under the guest bed.”
“Maybe. My therapist gave it to me when I was 19. If I do, its in a box of books I was going to get rid of.”
“I keep my copy hidden behind other less-embarrassing books.”
Although I, like most of my friends, read the activist classic Bomb the Suburbs and its successor, No More Prisons, the paperbacks had long ago been traded for spare change in bookstore credit. That is not to say that the books had little value: For me and many of my left-leaning teenage peers, they provided romantically radical affirmations of our exodus from hometowns to urban hubs upon graduating from high school. 21-year-old Upski talked big and harsh about racism, classism and urbanism, like a Malcom X of middle-class white kids. “The suburbs is more than just an unfortunate geographical location, it is an unfortunate state of mind. It’s the American state of mind, founded on fear, conformity, shallowness of character, and dullness of imagination.” His sharp points became effective weapons in the defense of my new West Philadelphia neighbors and neighborhoods from parental reproaches.
When Bomb the Suburbs was published first in 1994 and then more widely in 2000, Upski was the tag name of some hip-hop guy from Chicago, bombing easily referred to “graffiti” before terrorism, and the stable ascent of the American economy under Clinton fostered suburbs of relative affluence spreading further from the still-suffering inner cities. Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs was written in the summer of 2010 by William Wimsatt, the 38-year-old Upski. Times have changed, and so has he — and there are some things to set straight. First on the agenda is the classic lesson of any coming-of-age story: Do not make the same mistakes I did — and firstly, don’t jokingly name your book something that could fuel a Fox News smear campaign.
While the new book begins by with Upski narrating the tale of his maturation since we last heard from him, charting a path from hip-hop journalism into community organizing, political campaigning and the current political strategizing, you don’t need to read Bomb the Suburbs to understand Please Don’t… Weaving his personal point of view with an historical account of his own coming of age parallels the maturation and growth of ‘the movement’. Activism is at-first explained via the hip-hop counter culture and the big political plot shift coincides with Wimsatt’s own moment of truth on that fateful eve when a handful of Floridians swung the Bush election. He immediately made a shift from the anti-establishment to establishing organizations. With his founding the League of Young Voters and the Generational Alliance, he no longer wanted us to bomb the suburbs, but to canvass them.
He claims his change of heart is, in part, contextual, as the suburbs and political system of 2010 are more diverse and progressive, but largely it’s about the big picture. He’s framing the survival of the human race on this planet as dependent on current American electoral politics and progressive movements. Inclusion and wide participation are imperative, and thus the suburbanites, liberals, conservatives and everyone Democratically inclined must be rounded up. He encourages his progressive readers to vote, move home, move to red states, establish non-profits, foster progressive young voter movements, work within local and national communities in order to eventually become mayors, senators and presidents.
Like its precursors, Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs is a call to action but definitely more of a telephone poll during dinner than a rebel yell. While it initially struck me as laughably de-radicalized, its unrelenting positivity and unguarded self-help approach are a different kind of radicalism that Wimsatt argues is what we need into today’s gloom-and-doom political climate, and that’s a good point. Because Wimsatt aims this point and this publication at young activists, he attempts to make it accessible, yet engaging.
While a young reader may find something big within these pages, Please Don’t… will ultimately face the same fate of similar books that came before it — a life under parents’ guest bed. If its repeated use of “WTF” or dated hip-hop slang don’t insult you, if the self-help sections on emotional maturity and love do not embarrass you, and the coined catch phrases like “mini-Obamas” or referring to the environment unrelentingly as “God’s Big Art Project” don’t drive you away, Wimsatt’s got some concise insider advice for those specifically interested in the non-profits, community organizing, progressive philanthropy, political campaigning and the building of his “Super Movement 2020.” The lack of cynicism, academic language or personal discretion could be refreshing for some, but it can also make this a grueling and irrelevant read. With the Democrats’ slaughter in November’s elections, Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs has given me one thing to look forward to, and that is what I may get for it at the used bookstore.