Saturday, July 19, 2008

Chickenhawks of the Enlightenment

I've just learned (tardily, as usual) from Tom Piatak at Taki's that University of Minnesota professor and blogger of the unfortunately common uber-glib school (casual conversational tone, replete with gratuitous obscenities), PZ Myers, outraged at the reaction of a Catholic church to a student protester spiriting away (excuse the expression) and defiling the Eucharist, has taken up that hoary and delusional cliche of the self-imagined secular crusader, The Brave Battle Against Catholicism and the Coming Inquisition (and, yes, the I-word was literally deployed):
So, what to do. I have an idea. Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There's no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I'm sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I'll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won't be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a g--damned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart. If you can smuggle some out from under the armed guards and grim nuns hovering over your local communion ceremony, just write to me and I'll send you my home address.
Get that, "there's no way" he can breach the defenses of local churches (I imagine he fantasizes his image on a wanted poster over the holy water, right up there with Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins). Not since George Bush donned that flight suit have I witnessed such a manly display.

I suppose if the Professor deferred the instant gratification of publicly brandishing his offended intellectual superiority and treated those with whom he disagrees as if they actually have a right to their contrary beliefs, he would have to acknowledge the congregants were minding their own business engaged in worship to which they have a moral and constitutional right, entirely within the confines of the Church. The fact that the student places no value on the "cracker" gives him no right to disrupt, and thereby deny, these people this, their most fundamental right.

Myers makes much of what he sees as melodramatic language employed by the church in its defense and their demands that the Eucharist be returned. But the language and deeply held nature of the outrage expressed by the church is entirely beside the point--and any casual but competent observer will see from the start that the question is this: does the church have a right to its practices free of harassment? This did not take place in the public square. That's what's striking here--Myers and cohort simply do not recognize the church's right to defend the place and circumstances of their worship; they essentially assert that their certainty regarding what they see as its delusional and silly nature empowers them to interfere with it.

This is little different from an invasion of an individual's private sphere, or the disruption of any group's free assembly--the petty and sordid nature of the student's actions notwithstanding. I suppose I too will be deemed a frothing-at-the-mouth zealot if I see in this the embryo of totalitarianism, but I do. I have many things of various levels of sentimental value, that others will deem meaningless, in my home. Does Professor Myers presume the right to take them and make a show of defacing them, and does he assert that right based on his superior arguments as to the irrationality of my sentiment, and the fervor with which I defend it? And this man dares to compare this with the Inquisition--when he is the one demanding this inalienable right be surrendered to the prank of a petulant child. Irony everywhere these days, and still some don't recognize it when it falls on their oblivious heads.

This is after all the same sort of provocateur strategy employed in the revolutionary phase of the last century's more destructive totalitarian movements, Left and Right--and religion and religious institutions were among the first targeted and held in special contempt (a contempt Myers holds just as fiercely, if his actions are more comic than sinister), as obstructions to absolutism. In a time of increasing government power, decreasing constitutional rights, militarism and the hijacking of Born-Again Christian churches by militant millenarians--all of which are increasingly becoming part of a whole--hostility toward the Catholic Church is downright baffling. One has to conclude that, despite the attempts of these antagonists to hang the history of human folly and vanity on religion--the classic, ubiquitous misperception that human flaws arise from human institutions, rather than bedevil them--they believe their certainty is justification enough to destroy an institution that, in their eyes, competes with them for power.

I do have one suggestion for this self-styled defender of the Enlightenment: go where the battle is joined in earnest, say to a madrassa in Pakistan (or a mosque in Europe, for that matter) and have a go at the "meaningless" articles of their faith. I recommend an artist's rendering of Muhammad, for instance. Just paper and ink! Or, if Myers' notoriety goes beyond the local churches and is global (Carlos the Jackanape, International Man of Hysteria), he can pull the same prank he has planned already--complete with address provided on demand, and on-camera starring role. The clarion has sounded, Professor.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Truth, No Stranger Than Fiction

Okay, the epic battle of crass New York operators Guiliani and Clinton never materialized, but at least I imagined this much:

And yes, Iraq was, finally, united. The always precarious alliance between erstwhile insurgent Sunni groups and US forces had run its course, a casualty of its own success as the foreign element all but disappeared. In its absence the Sunnis, recognizing their most realistic hope was not to regain control of the nation as a whole but perhaps, over the long run, retain influence where their numbers allowed, reconciled themselves. Shi'ites, tired of the occupation and realizing accommodation with the Sunnis might be their best means of removing any pretense of its necessity, and that some sort of accord was ultimately required nonetheless, were reaching out in the sort of political reconciliation that had been so elusive since Saddam's ouster. Equilibrium had been reached between the sects through the now complete process of ethnic cleansing and separation; things had run their course. Thus the two sides seemed to turn to the American occupation and ask in unison, why? The struggle now was between the two main Shi'ite factions for dominance in the south.

Opposition to the statement of understanding of the previous year between Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and the United States, outlining a permanent US military presence in the country and now being offered as legislation, was nearly universal. Maliki, almost completely without allies within Iraq and thus utterly dependent on the US, attempted to enact the agreement by executive order following a walk-out of nearly half the Iraqi parliament. The opposition surprised him and the US by calling for nationwide strikes and protests until the United States agreed to the rapid withdrawal of all military forces. The Iraqi democratization project was coming along alright; Iraq had discovered organized civil disobedience.
Which sounds a bit like this. Of course Maliki, like Rudy and Hillary, isn't cooperating either.

I really should get back on that fictional history. It's just hard to outdo reality these days.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Art is Propaganda is Art

Correction: Confronted by an alert Disney defender, I have corrections aplenty: Disney did not make Shrek; the musical Wall-E watches in the film is Hello Dolly (not by Disney); I further must concede that there is in fact no evidence of a flatulence mandate–I was rather carelessly extrapolating from one running gag in The Lion King. And here I thought that saying “propaganda is okay” was the mildly provocative part of this post. Just goes to show you never can tell.

Intrigued by the controversy, for lack of a better word, dogging the recent Pixar release Wall-E, I did something I rarely do anymore. I paid to see a movie in a theatre. My only complaint about ticket prices concerns the arbitrary circumstance imposed by the single price standard. For those few great films I've had the good sense to see in a theatre before they migrated to the home format (for most nowadays that means never to return--unless they achieve cult or classic status, and then in a strictly limited run years on) the nominal ticket price is an occasion to thank one's lucky stars to live in and benefit from modern America's combination of a remarkable economy and a film industry that occasionally produces high art ("as of this writing" should qualify the former, which may soon prove as illusory as, if less lasting than, the latter).
But for those far more common experiences, well, I'm still smarting a dozen years later over that twenty five dollars spent to see a movie about a talking pig while eating popcorn that was almost as disagreeable gastronomically as the film was intellectually. Parents of young or recently young children may empathize. One welcome byproduct of the onset of adolescence is the release from Disney's sinister embrace--and for me it came just in time to avoid the abominable Shrek series, the success of which is a mystery I will gladly carry to my grave, along with the inscrutable appeal of Robin Williams and the indecipherable workings of Deal or No Deal. Maybe someone else can inform me: does Disney still observe a mandated minimum one fart joke per film?

But I'm not sure the greater part of the price is printed on the ticket. I can't help resenting the interminable "previews of coming attractions" as an opportunistic advantage taken of my temporary state of immobility. The reaction of my fellow audience members suggests that I should view them as a sort of bonus. They are the supposed good bits after all, and even I feel a twinge of sympathy for the doomed production that can't even manage enough of these to float a five minute highlight reel. But I don't go to the movie theatre to see commercials.

Arriving ten minutes late expressly to avoid them was no use; I still counted five that I had to endure, literally groaning at points. Wall-E being a children's film meant that these previews would be especially excruciating. There seems to be a logic to them, too, in that they grow progressively more obnoxious; of course this may more reflect an internal psychological expenditure. I'm a tad brittle about some things. The last was a film about a chihuahua that may or may not have the power of speech; you will no doubt be delighted and surprised to learn he's a lively little guy with a Mexican accent and a heart as grand as his stature is diminutive! This part is absolutely true: the preview's exit line was the dog exclaiming, "let it begin!", to which I found myself wailing plaintively, "let it end!" before slumping down in my seat in embarrassment--but end it did.

The line promulgated from corporate-line blogs is that Wall-E is "environmentalist propaganda." This is a critique that suggests the critic doesn't understand, or care for, the nature of art. "Propaganda" is a phrase that seems destined to follow "fascist" into the void of meaninglessness, and unfortunately so, seeing as we live in a time and place where propaganda from government, political factions and corporations has never been so widely or skillfully employed--and is more inextricable from the media whole than ever. Any work of art that isn't completely escapist (even this is arguable) is by nature propagandistic, in that it is an assertion biased by a particular worldview and inflexibly held--often diametrically contrary to convention. Just as it should be.

To criticize a work of fictional art as "propaganda" is, by inference, to argue art must be factually comprehensive and unbiased (and how utterly hypocritical of our corporatist right-wing media-sphere to level this charge while seizing upon dissent and reporting they disagree with, often with veiled threats leveling accusations of our time's equivalent of apostasy--insufficient patriotism); it is no less than denying the artist his point of view. They're engaged in an attack the very idea of artistic freedom and thus art itself, replacing it with, ironically, propaganda--that is, their propaganda. None of this is to say that a deliberate misrepresentation of reality isn't one valid criticism of a work of art, more so the more it aspires to realism and social commentary, just that it isn't the only one and it doesn't in itself preclude a work's value. Many valuable works of art are essentially lies or deliberate distortions. For instance, irony, essentially dishonest as it is, can be said to be the antidote to the inevitable effect of repetition and cliche rendering a distorted view of reality or devolving into kitsch--but that's for another time.

Oh yeah, the film. Wall-E is definitely, and somewhat clumsily, an environmentalist dystopian fantasy. I say clumsily because its chosen nemesis destroying a recalcitrant humanity's world--excess garbage--is probably the least worrisome in reality. Nonetheless the first act of the film that envisions this lifeless earth, from which humanity has had to flee in a mammoth interstellar spacecraft (why they launch themselves into deep space and not their garbage is not explained), is woefully beautiful and worth the price of admission in itself. The film's title character is a self-propelled automatic trash compactor, left behind on earth and toiling away obliviously in his function, collecting garbage, compressing it into neat blocks and piling those blocks up in great sky-scraping towers of trash. The machine has taken on human qualities, however, pining for love learned about by watching an old Disney musical and rummaging through the great mounds of garbage for odd interesting objects of no particular value that it saves.

Here I perhaps I indulged myself, reading into the work an aspect I found more compelling than the simple misanthropic morality tale, touched by the idea of a world of human artifacts that represent mankind's inexhaustible capacity for creation, yet artifacts we've become so good at producing--literally mass producing--that they are somehow rendered valueless. I wanted the film to be about this unavoidable loss of the human element in handicraft, this entropying of craftsmanship as an aspect of civilization, lost to the efficiency and inevitability of economic pressures--and still, even these useless plastic remnants are products of that most amazing and magical of human impulses, creativity. That's what I drew from this image of a machine imbued with human qualities engaged in a hopeless salvage operation preserving the history of human industry.

Eventually Wall-E finds his way onto a massive spacecraft that operates as an interstellar cruise ship, housing the wandering remnant of humanity generations removed from any memory of earth and running on autopilot. Pixar still hasn't perfected animation of the human face, and the film suffers in its rendering of people and dialogue. Unfortunately the film becomes thematically as crude as it is visually here, presenting the remaining humans as obese and muscularly atrophied as a result of generations of sloth, intellectually indolent as well, moving about on hovercraft lawn chairs slurping all sustenance through straws (the image of humans losing mobility due to automation and leisure is an idea introduced in a story-within-a-story some thirty years ago by Kurt Vonnegut, and seems to have travelled from interesting idea to morbid cliche with no intervening interval of valuable interpretation). This detracts from the film more for its lack of imagination than its dismissive view of human potential. A more severe and talented misanthrope could have done much better after all. One can think of a great many more interesting ways that vanity and human sensuality might distort the species in such a novel environment.
Nonetheless this is a worthy film, delivering a few moments of undeniable beauty, sentimental without being saccharine and triumphant over its flaws. That puts it in far better, and rarer, company than the particular type of propaganda I presume our keyboard commandos ("Spaaar-taaans!") find so much more appropriate.

Is Wall-E propaganda? Yes, to its enduring credit.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Who's Bailing What?

When the government first proposed its tax rebate scheme last January, many were quick to point out the money was not ultimately, despite the signature on the check, a payment from the US government, but a loan from abroad, largely from Japan and China. Now that we can confidently anticipate the consensus will quickly form around the presumptive necessity of a bailout of that economically distressed couple Freddie and Fannie, it's worth noting who is ultimately being bailed out here:
The top five foreign holders of Freddie and Fannie long-term debt are China, Japan, the Cayman Islands, Luxembourg, and Belgium. In total foreign investors hold over $1.3 trillion in these agency bonds, according to the U.S. Treasury's most recent "Report on Foreign Portfolio Holdings of U.S. Securities."
FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe commented, "The prospectus for every GSE bond clearly states that it is not backed by the United States government. That's why investors holding agency bonds already receive a significant risk premium over Treasuries."
"A bailout at this stage would be the worst possible outcome for American taxpayers and mortgage holders, who have been paying a risk premium to these foreign investors. It would change the rules of the game retroactively and would directly subsidize the risks taken by sophisticated foreign investors."
"A bailout of GSE bondholders would be perhaps the greatest taxpayer rip-off in American history. It is bad economics and you can be sure it is terrible politics."
I'm not so sure about that last sentence. Define "terrible politics." Via Mish's Global Economic Trend Analysis

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Keeping Hope Alive

"You know, sometimes we're not prepared for adversity."
--The Reverend Jesse Jackson

Could this be the "decrepitude and what promises to be an entertaining public dementia" I so carelessly wrote about last year? It's always easier to imagine despised public figures suffering personal indignities than to witness it. There's no pleasure to be drawn from the spectacle of someone's lapsing faculties causing him and those around him embarrassment, no matter how deserved it may seem to those many (one might argue an entire country) who've suffered the demagogy of this ambitious operator, whose greed and vanity were always his most salient features, if only now laid pathetically bare. And make no mistake, the Reverend is not so much outraged at Senator Obama "talking down" to black people as he is resentful at the precocious prince's seemingly effortless assumption of the highest place atop the system of legal and moral privilege Jackson's spent a lifetime hewing out of the granite of our great nation without a care for consequences. What fevered tortures the ego, irreducible and irreversible, inflicts on the faltering and fading mind that must contain it.

I do wonder at these ambitious sorts who seem determined to go on scratching and clawing at one another as if they'll live forever. So few seem to quietly stand down in thoughtful retirement--or perhaps it's just that these are so much less visible than such as Reverend Jackson. Sometimes I suspect that's what pathological ambition is in the end, the attempt to will oneself immortal. Somebody throw a cape over the old guy, a la the old James Brown gag, and lead him offstage. For his and our benefit.

(cross-posted at TAC)

Thursday, July 03, 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!

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:

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.

The boulevards are filled with the dark mass of veterans, like a rapidly growing moss overtaking everything.

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.

Civilians standing on cars to get a better view watch as the veterans march their captives before them.

He is sitting in a wheelchair, watching the parade, an old army blanket over his legs. Tears are streaming down his face.

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.

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.


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.


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