Friday, July 04, 2008

Summer Re-runs, Again

Fourth of July, Summertime 08 Acid Flashback Remix

History may be written with blood and iron, but it is printed with ink, and it is made real and dangerous when it is put on film, the alternate literature of our times...History is not over yet, and history collects its debts.
—Gustav Hasford, Vietnam Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

U.S.A is the slice of a continent. U.S.A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of law bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres, a column of stockquotations rubbed out and written in by a Western Union boy on a blackboard, a public library full of old newspapers and dogeared historybooks with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil. U.S.A. is the world’s greatest rivervalley fringed with mountains and hills, U.S.A. is a set of bigmouthed officials with too many bankaccounts. U.S.A. is a lot of men buried in their uniforms in Arlington Cemetery. U.S.A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home. But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.
—John Dos Passos, U.S.A.

Strike me, but listen!
--Themistocles

America is not the answer. This statement does not constitute sacrilege, as we've been conditioned to believe. Yet its opposite assertion, the prevailing sentiment of our times, is taken for granted and only rejected by the remnants of the sixties radical Left who haven't yet gone mainstream, mad or over to the neoconservative Right, where the business of quasi-religious global revolution, still, is so much better.
But this sentiment, that American values and institutions, that is to say America, are the answer to the ills of the world, is sacrilege in the literal religious sense, as well as loosely speaking--against decency, good sense, modesty, those tragically under-appreciated values that compel us to, for instance, recognize the rights of nations to self-determination and liberty. This widely held if little examined faith works through the same means of cultural intimidation as political correctness--is becoming intertwined as an article of political correctness--and is how liberal interventionists and neoconservatives alike have become the useful idiots of adventurous practitioners of machtpolitik--Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush, et al. It's illustrative that there's not an ideologue in this unsavory triad.

We have become incapable of recognizing the tragic pride of this attitude. This, the closest thing we have to a national religion, is a faith that cannot rise to the level of religion because it requires nothing of us--other than nodding, unthinking acquiescence to power. It combines the worst aspect of religiosity--resistance to contradictory reality, with the worst consequences of secularism--immodesty, intellectual and moral sloth, decadence. We forget ourselves.

Espousing this faith is a requirement for those who seek elective office in America, as well as their most useful demagogic tool. The rhetoric of this exceptionalism is deployed as a means of intimidation by those across the spectrum, whether it is the welfare or the warfare state in which they are invested--of course it is often both, now. On this Independence Day, 2008, America is under siege from Right and Left, two enemies that aren't so much diametric opposites as they are competing coalitions, factions that share the same thinly veiled contempt for the straight and double-edged sword that is the Constitution. Individuals move back and forth between these groups with ease and no real qualms or difficulties beyond those presented by their particular networks of individual and group alliances. Exceptionalism, hollow, fatuous and vain, is the enemy, ironically, of the people and the republic that it flatters. America is not the answer is not a criticism of America, but a defense of her.

A republic is above all about limits on ambition and power, about containing them, checking them, mitigating them through division. No ambitious man can serve in a true republic without conspiring against its limits. The more ambitious the individual the more he feels this disdain, the more he conspires against it, sometimes in collusion with his political opposites. The longer he serves the greater his contempt. This contempt has become a requirement of power. Personal ambition is the continual, perpetual corrosive that will always, in the end, erode a democratic republic. This is the never-ending struggle. Seeing as ambition is a value unto itself in a country that elevates a Donald Trump or the various growling, sulking absurdities that have taken over hip hop, ambition seems to have gained an irreversible advantage.

This vain conceit of exceptionalism is the American tragedy, the mass self-delusion by which we conceal our motives and crimes, for which we are squandering our inheritance, consuming institutions we've allowed to lapse into decrepitude and burning liberties for the paltry warmth of "security"--as if freedom from state power hasn't always meant sacrificing security (it was a braver nation that accepted this); this delusion could only resolve itself in the hallucinatory paranoia that now has us flailing away at imagined enemies, destroying entire nations and frantically trying to build them back up. Our assault on history even includes its physical artifacts as we degrade the ruins of Ur itself. Unwilling to accept the limits of morality on the ordinary, we declare ourselves extraordinary, determined that America be the answer and all before and outside of it the question, declaring that history no longer applies to us.

Our cathedral is the cinema; its language is cinematic. In this alternate reality that we have the tragic power to will, for a time, upon the world, not only does history end, it has a happy ending, our happy ending, inevitable but somehow still necessitating that we will it into being, no matter how much wealth is expended, how much blood, innocent or not, is spilled, no matter how much capital of freedom and liberty must be spent. America now flatters itself with the ridiculous conceit that it is the hero of the piece that is human history, late in act three and poised to enjoy the denouement of a victorious resolution.

I prefer the nation that accepts the uncertainty of the question to that which preens as the answer. The bravery of the free to the arrogance of the powerful. My America is not complete. America is unfinished. It is a working title, a project, under construction; this thing America hasn’t yet run its course. One might even say it hasn’t occurred yet.

What is a nation? How durable is a nation founded on a proposition the vast majority of its citizens couldn’t define? How much apathy can our nominal republic take? How cheap a currency can be made of citizenship before the nation that backs it is no more? Has that already happened? Have we run off the edge of the precipice of hubris and empire, intoxicated by the sense of flight, soon to be falling?

A nation is a collective memory; America’s is short. How is it we’ve come to allow the president to wage war not on a congressional declaration but on the slippery ruse of an “authorization to use force”; nothing more than a means for congressmen to absolve themselves of direct responsibility while providing the president with imperial powers limitless in scope, duration and conception; a “global war on terror.” War everywhere, forever, not on a nation or an entity but on a tactic; knowing that we’re not actually waging war on a cruel device we have to acknowledge that we are really making war on a sentiment: anti-Americanism. Continual war, waged out of sight of the public and with the blind assent of a self-abnegating Congress. But enough of that, it’s Independence Day.

I have nothing to offer but my hallucinations:
I am hovering above the earth looking down upon us and I see we are dispersed across the globe, physically, ideologically, conceptually. There’s the U.S.A. before me; it’s barely recognizable, an elastic thing that has been pulled at the edges and stretched across the oceans to every reach of the planet; but the center is drawing continually on its fraying edges, edges that are under constant tension, elongating the holes created by the tilting pikes that cruelly spear them into place.

It’s a world littered with expatriates and wannabes, and with those our government sends abroad: lonely sentries manning worthless posts; homesick marines staring into their warm beer in the enlisted club on some Godforsaken island outpost; sailors working round the clock to keep the flight deck of an aircraft carrier going, forever keeping the birds in the air. The time has come to ask, if not why then: how much longer? I wish I could stand on the tallest mountain and call them all home, like a muezzin calling to prayer.
I see the soldiers coming back; streaming home, every simple one of them: jug eared farm boys, once callow suburban kids who’ve seen the worst horrors, swaggering brothers, fearless cholos; seen from my perch above the earth they are like trails of ants as they stream back from every direction, converging on America, converging on home; the guns are dismantled and left behind; moving among them like a wraith I’m looking all the way back across the Pacific; I see a tire swing draped from the end of a decommissioned artillery gun, some Okinawan kids are taking turns walking the barrel like a tight rope; they are silhouetted against a red setting sun. Somewhere a leftover land mine goes off.

Turning back toward home I see there is a lighthouse on a hill, its turret turning steadily, placidly, alternating a blood-filled red, white, and blue light, calling to home; the hillside is black and surging with the returning soldiers. They are marching in a disordered mass, officers and enlisted alike, hats cocked back or thrown aside, uniform shirts left open in front. They are ragged but they are not rabble, you can tell by the look in their eyes, you can tell by their bearing. They have a purpose.

The tall doors to the chamber are bursting, swelling from the mass pushing on them; politicians are fleeing in all directions; the massive double doors are pulsating and expanding like a great wooden heart; bu-bump; bu-bump. The doors fly open and in comes the mass of soldiers, some are hobbled on crutches, some have bandages wrapped about their heads, some walk mechanically on prosthetic limbs; they are running down the chicken-hawks and the neocons; pulling them down as they attempt to climb the curtains, pushing phony tough talking liberals back and forth between them; two of them are playing keep-away with a senator’s toupee. Barack Obama is unconvincingly, nervously affecting street-slang as he lies to a group of black Marines; their faces are impassive as they back him into a table. Beneath it John McCain is hiding, already dutifully drafting the public confession he expects to offer; seeing Obama's skinny ankle he scowls, growling as he sinks his teeth into it; discovered, he snarls and snaps as he is dragged out into the open.

They are blanketing the Mall; security and police silently join their ranks. The rod-iron gate before the White House falls flat before them like bamboo fence. Inside they are coming through every door, every window; aides and functionaries are clutching like terrified children at impassive secret service agents who stand aside; the mass silently leaves an opening for a tour group to pass through on its way out, a soldier snatches Doug Feith by the collar as he tries to sneak out amongst the tourists, brushing aside the NASCAR ball-cap disguise awkwardly perched on his head; a giant corn-fed farm boy has cornered a red-faced Dick Cheney and has him gently and threateningly by the tie. Someone has Wolfowitz by the ankles, holding him out a window. They fill the oval office. Bush has escaped. Of course. Could it be any other way? They pass through without disturbing the furniture, driving their captives before them. Lagging behind, someone straightens a portrait on the wall.

In the halls of Fox News they are scratching and clawing in their flight, some of the men still wearing their make-up bibs, as the veterans come pouring in, continually flowing in impossible numbers from the elevator doors, as if they were a rising tide of camouflage green and tan flooding the building by way of the elevator shaft; Bill O’Reilly, half finished from makeup he looks like a transvestite who’s removed his wig, pushes a small woman out of the way and goes through a set of steel double doors into the stairwell; but they are coming up the stairs in step, echoing like one giant marching heel, boom, boom, boom. O’Reilly turns and finds the doors are locked, pulling frantically on the handles, whimpering. He has no choice, he flees upward, but they are coming down the stairs too somehow.

In Fresno someone has set fire to Victor Davis Hanson’s vineyards. As if made of rubber, the burning vines are pouring a foul, unnatural black smoke into the sky; their charred remains take on the form of skeletons. Little black cobwebs drift down to the ground. There is a smell of burning flesh. The smell lingers even though I am now viewing everything on a giant screen in America’s last drive-in theatre:

INT. SURBUBAN HOME, DAY
In a home office we see a computer workstation; the computer's screen shows a typical war blog; we see the war blogger, just his lower half, being dragged out the window as his legs thrash about futilely.

EXT. AERIAL, MANHATTAN FROM ABOVE, DAY
The boulevards are filled with the dark mass of veterans, like a rapidly growing moss overtaking everything.

INT. NEWSROOM
The low ceiling shakes and drops bits of plaster as the veterans advance. Reporters cower under their desks; they are horrified and retching at the smell of death. Two Royal Marines are shaking down Christopher Hitchens; he’s talking like a hyperactive lunatic, trying to bullshit his way out of it; Judy Miller has been turned over to some butch female sailors who force her to march with Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton--she tries to slip one of them a bribe before her hand is slapped down.

EXT. STREET LEVEL, MANHATTAN, DAY
Civilians standing on cars to get a better view watch as the veterans march their captives before them.

EXT. CLOSE SHOT, AGED VETERAN, DAY
He is sitting in a wheelchair, watching the parade, an old army blanket over his legs. Tears are streaming down his face.

EXT. SAME, DAY
The veterans are marching down a street bordered by towering skyscrapers toward the harbor docks. Civilians are following behind them; running children bring up the rear; people are leaning out of windows, some are dumping ticker-tape out the windows, some are waving flags.

EXT. NEW YORK HARBOR, DAY
From a distance we see two World War II era military transport ships, waiting. No one is visible on their decks. They are in black and white against the technicolor backdrop. The captives appear in the foreground, followed and driven forward by their captors, moving toward the ships. The smell of death is lifting. An oversized sun is rising in the east.

FADE

What is U.S.A? I know only a small part of it. It’s an old black Studebaker covered in the dust and bugs of a dozen states; it’s low-rider bicycles, skateboards, pin-ups, cut-off shorts; it’s stupid high school jocks and crazy vatos, sullen, hard-headed brothers and single minded wave obsessed surfers; it's burnouts chilling and insanely ambitious overachievers; it's gaggles of picture perfect California girls that radiate sex and vitality.

U.S.A. is the ugly as well: streets filled with idling cars, strip bars and strip malls, spinning rims and vulgar bumper stickers, thumping bass coming from car stereos broadcasting infantile obscenities Doppler-distorted as they pass, spandex and tattoos, crass sitcoms and comic book film adaptations made by committees of accountants and focus groups, vapid celebrities attended by sycophants and watched with slack-jawed placidity by dullards in government subsidized homes on sixty inch plasma TVs planted in the midst of the refuse of their idly rapacious existence as unwashed children run about ignored until they step in front of the screen; it’s people with cell phones to their ears jabbering away emptily—not even they see the purpose in their chatter. They wouldn't recognize purpose; they would look at you sidelong if you tried to explain relevance to them. They know irony; they know that this thing references that thing but they don't know the origin of anything.

And everywhere always the noise; television advertisements, airplanes overhead, radio chatter, traffic, sputtering jake brakes, shouting, Friday night football, after hours clubs, video games, shooting ranges, brawling drunkards, crowds, arenas rumbling from across town--the din of it all everywhere at once, an overwhelming, shrill maternal embrace. Is there no silence left in America?

There is; I’ve felt it. It’s in those golden hills at the northern end of California, just before you cross into Oregon, it is perfectly still there; it’s in the early morning in various surprising places, sometimes right in the middle of the city. It’s in countless meticulously created and maintained gardens in suburban backyards. It’s as if there is only the one silence that moves about and sometimes descends on you. It once found me in the early morning on a highway turnout overlooking the Pacific after spending the night sleeping in the back of a broken down truck.

What is America? Right at this moment it’s a twenty year old homesick jarhead taking a harrowing cab ride through a narrow alley in the Far East. It’s a pair of adventurous college girls backpacking through Europe. It’s a twelve year old prodigy inventing a revolution in his father’s workshop without yet realizing it.

America isn't represented in Star Wars movies and can't be seen through CGI; it won’t be found in the weekend box office numbers of the latest would-be blockbuster, don’t bother looking there (who the hell cares anymore?); it isn’t seen on Entertainment Tonight or known to the clueless, smirking mediocrities of vox-pop television programs. It isn’t this week's celebrity affecting a personal revelation described as an act of healing that just happens to coincide with her latest movie’s release. It isn’t the corrosive rot of cross-promotion. How easily we could do without these!

America is John Dos Passos making an epic journey of his life and finding himself back where he started; it’s Walt Whitman wandering the land as unnoticed as a beggar and taking it all in; it’s Ralph Ellison stewing away in his basement; it’s Francis Ford Coppola turning a Renaissance artist’s eye on New York across the decades; it's Grandmaster Flash discovering scratching; it's Smedley Butler refusing to ignore what motivates the bloodshed.

America is the dizzying, infinite profusion of countless imaginations left unrestrained. It is the automobile and the airplane; the moving picture screen and the internet. It's the aggregate of millions of individual ambitions; it's the vulgarian and the puritan, each holding up his end; it is ugly cel towers and elegant church steeples. It's an ever-growing number of also-rans and extras, white trash losers with a fatalist attitude, unapologetic and defiant, proud failures like me, lost to the world the moment we passed into it, grateful nonetheless and happily railing away in obscurity--as you see. It is this right here.
It is still, in its conception, in its glorious past and in its tantalizing potential, in the imagination of the people, the greatest republic yet. U.S.A.