Thursday, August 10, 2006

Bush's America: trapped between fun house mirrors

I wanted to write an article pulling together some of the ideas expressed on the previous roundtable: All the bad news has come true. Thanks to all those contributing, it turned out to have been an unvarnished examination of what America was, is, or might have been. I wanted to find a common a thread, the relationship of one idea to another.

I instinctively pulled a couple of books off the shelf: among them Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution by E.L. Doctorow, a well-thumbed book by my favorite novelist. I also ran across some notes that I had taken about Matthew Arnold, a British philosopher of the Aesthetic Movement. Arnold said that America’s riches, power and energy had not made it, in any way, interesting. He went on to point out that it is not by military power that a nation becomes interesting. It is, rather, its capacity to create beauty. The consensus on this forum seems to have been this: rather than creating beauty, we have foisted upon this continent an ugly carbuncle that is very nearly unlivable and increasingly despoiled.

Doctorow was reading Arnold at about the same time that he put Abbe Hoffman in his book: The Book of Daniel (1971). It was a book that dealt with an issue that just will not go away: "the generally sacrificial role" played by the American left throughout our history. Or –as one of Doctorow’s characters in The Book of Daniel put it:

You want to know what was wrong with the old American Communists? They were into the system. They wore ties. They held down jobs. They put people up for President. They thought politics is something you do at a meeting. When they got busted they called it tyranny. They were Russian tit suckers. Russia! Who's free in Russia? All the Russians want is steel up everyone's ass. Where's the revolution in Russia?... The American Communist Party set the Left back fifty years. I think they worked for the FBI. That's the only explanation. They were conspiratorial. They were invented by J. Edgar Hoover. They were his greatest invention.

–Yippie, The Book of Daniel, E.L. Doctorow

Hoffman himself is remembered for his great banana hoax –his declaration that bananas inserted rectally produced an incredible high! Hoffman, reportedly, had hoped Pentagon war mongers would give it a try. For all we know, they tried it and liked it. It explains a lot and may become the source of a handy epithet when banana loving sodomites plunge us into World War III.

Clearly –the creation of our hideous society was not achieved overnight under Bush’s dubious and ineffective stewardship. The Military/Industrial complex warned of by Ike was already in control of the national budget –squandering it then as now in a foreign quagmire. From that, every other ill follows.

My thesis and the many articulate comments that followed had been simply this: American cities have become a Fritz Lang nightmare –hideous, grotesque, almost unlivable manifestations of what we are and what we have become. What we –perpetrators of atrocities in far flung corners of the world –have become is something I no longer recognize. Nor want to.
The point of culture is to make a rational being ever more rational.

—Matthew Arnold

But, sadly, America may not have a culture, rather, we have a feedback loop called pop culture — a false image of phony values celebrated "virtually" not in real space —but in cyberspace. By Arnold’s standard, this grand experiment has been a miserable failure. No one has lately accused America of becoming ever more rational. We are, rather, trapped between fun house mirrors and expected to embrace it all as if it were real.







The Existentialist Cowboy

19 comments:

Mark said...

"…Modern fascism should be properly called corporatism, since it is the merger of state, military and corporate power..."

Benito Mussolini



It strikes me that American culture is not so much about the incapacity to create beauty as the preference for acquisition of it from elsewhere. There’s pretty much nothing of which the hand of man is capable that Americans cannot do, and past efforts have shown Americans to be capable of producing works of great beauty in every venue and medium. However, the interest in so doing seems to have fallen out of fashion, in favour of acquiring beauty through clever commerce.

To me, American modern corporate architecture is more about projection of power than it is seduction.

Russians actually enjoy a good deal of personal freedom, and go about their daily lives much as others do. I’d agree they are oppressed as a people, in the sense that their access to a free press is curtailed by the state – however, hello, pot; meet kettle. There is an air of watchfulness in the streets, at least it seems so to a Westerner, but at least they don’t whitewash surveillance of their own with a bunch of shopworn bullshit about national security and only going after terrorists. They have most of the same interests, concerns and passions as others, and those I know are kind and compassionate. They look like Europeans and think like Asians. My wife is Russian, and in fact has been here only since last December. Before that, she had only been outside Russia once. She went through her own country's immigration procedures like Rita McNeil through a baked ham, but my country held her up for 3 years. I’ve spent a good deal of time there (Vladivostok and Dalnegorsk, the Russian Far East), and I grew to genuinely like the Russians. If you know somebody there, you are adopted into the circle of friends and family, just like everywhere else. Russians could teach North Americans a few things about family values, too, at least in my experience with my in-laws.

Len Hart said...

It strikes me that American culture is not so much about the incapacity to create beauty as the preference for acquisition of it from elsewhere. There’s pretty much nothing of which the hand of man is capable that Americans cannot do, and past efforts have shown Americans to be capable of producing works of great beauty in every venue and medium.

Americans have produced great artists —Andrew Wyeth, Jackson Pollock, Thomas Hart Benton, Childe Hassam, and one of my favorites: John Singer Sargent. Most great American art, however, is inspired by European ideals. Possible exceptions are Pollock and Warhol. But, no fan of Warhol, I could cite him in evidence of my thesis. Sargent, however, had never set foot in America until middle age, having grown up in Europe and creating a scandal in Paris with his Madame X. Hassam, of course, was an American "impressionist" —a French movement. America seems to have done better with writers: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Mencken, and, the author cited: E.L. Doctorow. Any survey of American authors, however, will uncover more pointed critics than me. Steinbeck chronicled heinous injustices; Hemingway sought himself abroad; Fitzgerald was friends with if not part of the American expatriate scene in Paris.

It is not my intention to denigrate the contributions of American artists, writers, philosophers. Indeed, their achievements seem all the more remarkable when one considers how utterly at odds most of them were and are with what passes for American "culture". Many, many examples abound. Mark Twain is certainly one of them. Our artists and writers have been our most outspoken critics. Some reckon that that is their job.

Indeed, what is most repugnant in American culture almost always originates from within the corporate establishment and is, therefore, fascist in nature. What is to be celebrated in American culture is too often drowned out and, in other ways, discouraged. By reducing everything to money, we have empowered the fascist/corporate establishment. Currency is their turf, their raison d'etre! What is to be said of a culture that nothing beautiful will be created that is not paid for handsomely by a big corporation? Moreover, by reducing everthing to what can be paid for or underwritten by a corporation is to ensure mediocrity and worse —mind numbing sameness. As an example, I give you PBS!

To me, American modern corporate architecture is more about projection of power than it is seduction.

And that's the problem with it. Witness the god-awful stuff that is put up in Houston these days. As Prof. Daniel Robinson, Georgetown University put it:

Having no genuinely authentic, creative and humanizing power within the art of architecture, we will simply put up something BIG! —Prof Daniel Robinson

Now —that problem is not confined to America. The Orient is competing to put something really big —the world's tallest building. When it is completed, it is sure to be the world's ugliest building. Part of America's problem is that an unimaginative, corporate mainstream hijacked counter culture terms in order to sell junk, corporate orthodoxy, and mass consumerism. Thus, nothing truly beautiful is appreciated unless it is also cool. Trouble is, cool itself was cool when it was used in Jazz and "beat" circles. Originally from "Cool It", meaning "calm down", it described an emerging jazz idiom itself. Rockers took it over in the 70's when it was used to describe Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock et al. Now —it's just utterly meaningless, mainstream —overused, primarily by the advertising industry, which was never cool.

Russians actually enjoy a good deal of personal freedom, and go about their daily lives much as others do. I’d agree they are oppressed as a people, in the sense that their access to a free press is curtailed by the state – however, hello, pot; meet kettle.

The remarks about Russia were made by a fictional character in a Doctorow novel set in the early 70's. They are more illustrative of the failure of the American left than they are intended to be an accurate description of life inside Russia —now or then.

Russians could teach North Americans a few things about family values, too

I have no doubt of that —having come to appreciate the Russian "soul".

daveawayfromhome said...

To your list of woes in the American psyche, you should add what I think of as "extreme culture", that is, the idea that nothing worthwhile exists anywhere but on the "edge". Bigger, faster, louder, shinier, if it doesnt make you say "wow" then no value is given to it. Through sheer stupid determination we've blinded ourselves to the pleasures of the "ordinary", and become obsessed with pushing boundaries. Can this kind of thinking lead anywhere, ultimately, but death?

Maybe this is why the public is apathetic about politics; because its unpleasantness is so mundane as to make it ignorable. Maybe if public service ads started billing the next Presidential race as "the Ultimate Election!!!" people might sit up and take notice. At this stage in the game, it might not be too far off the mark anyway.

damien said...

Sorry to drag people back from the culture wars. The London terror alerts are curiously similar to Project Bojinka. I don't know what to make of bottles of explosives, but there is this account from Keith Oblermann, some time ago:

December 17th, 2003: 9/11 Commission Co-Chair Thomas Kean says the attacks were preventable.

December 18th, 2003: A Federal Appeals Court says the government cannot detain suspected radiation-bomber Jose Padilla indefinitely without charges, and the chief U.S. Weapons inspector in Iraq, Dr. David Kay, who has previously announced he has found no Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, announces he will resign his post.

December 21st, 2003: Homeland Security again raises the threat level to Orange, claiming “credible intelligence” of further plots to crash airliners into U.S. cities. Subsequently, six international flights into this country are cancelled after some passenger names purportedly produce matches on government no-fly lists.

The French later identify those matched names: one belongs to an insurance salesman from Wales, another to an elderly Chinese woman, a third to a five-year old boy.


The French, of course, told the US very early on that there was nothing in the claim. But, faced with having their US landing rights revoked, they went along with the charade and grounded the flights.

The present alert may well be real, but...there's this questionable track record of US terror alerts.

damien said...

Now for my main rant...Warning! Warning! Serious Tinfoil Alert!

Alex Jones has gone to the top in his terror call: "Today's [US] red level terror alert in symbiosis with escalation of conflict in the Middle East is the trial balloon for a massive staged false flag terror attack, blamed on Hezbollah or Al-Qaeda, that will light the blue touch paper for World War Three."

I AGREE COMPLETELY.

I will be very relieved to be proven wrong and called a fool on this, but Jones vigorously warned of the 9/11 attacks about a month before they actually occured - and named the Bush team as behind it.

We have Larissa and Sy Hersh (also here) both pointing to an October attack against Iran. Scott Ritter agrees (he's spoken to Bolton’s speechwriter; the UN speech denouncing Iran has already been written).

There is the expanding Israeli action in Lebanon, with Condi defeated by GW on any peace deal with Lebanon (turned down by the same guy who didn't know there was a difference between shia and sunni when he invaded Iraq).

You don't move aircraft carriers to the Middle East unless you intend to use the.

We know a number of previous US terror alerts have been suspicious, some almost certainly faked. (link) (link)

So people have my full permission to rub it in my face and call me 'fool' every day in ten different ways if I'm wrong. And tell me to get back on my meds. But I'm buying every bit of the Alex Jones story. Look for a new, and deadly, 'October Surprise'.

Follow these terror alerts closely, folks. And read back over those earlier ones.

DON'T TRUST THESE CRIMINALS.

Dante lee said...

Hey, Len, check this out:
http://cartoonbydantelee.blogspot.com/

I told you so!!!

damien said...

Ok, look at the map. How much harm can I do from here?

Jen said...

All this talk about how countries manufacture wars reminds me of "The Princess Bride" movie (my all-time favorite). There's some great quotes in that movie about wars:

Fezzik: You never said anything about killing anyone.
Vizzini: I've hired you to help me start a war. It's an prestigious line of work, with a long and glorious tradition.

Count Rugen: Your princess is quite a winning creature. A trifle simple, perhaps. Her appeal is undeniable.
Prince Humperdinck: I know, the people are quite taken with her. It's odd, but when I hired Vizzini to have her murdered on our engagement day, I thought that was clever. But it's going to be so much more moving when I strangle her on our wedding night. Once Guilder is blamed, the nation will truly be outraged - they'll demand we go to war.

Count Rugen: Ah. Are you coming down into the pit? Wesley's got his strength back. I'm starting him on the machine tonight.
Prince Humperdinck: [sincerely] Tyrone, you know how much I love watching you work, but I've got my country's 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it; I'm swamped.
Count Rugen: Get some rest. If you haven't got your health, then you haven't got anything.

The concept of manufactured wars is not new... Sadly, it seems the majority of people can't (or don't want to) connect the dots to see the whole picture.

Len Hart said...

To your list of woes in the American psyche, you should add what I think of as "extreme culture", that is, the idea that nothing worthwhile exists anywhere but on the "edge". Bigger, faster, louder, shinier,

This tendency has manifested itself in evil ways most prominently: FOX. It is but a grotesque caricature of the often noble desire to excel.

All this talk about how countries manufacture wars reminds me of "The Princess Bride" movie (my all-time favorite)

Thanks for sharing the scene with us. I am fond of movies and movie making. Much truth is told in "fiction". As for "manufactured wars", our Military/Industrial complex should be recognized for what it is: the manufacturer of America's number one and numbertwo exports: death and destruction. If the various revenues and enterprises generated in the act of murdering people abroad were factored out of our economy, the US would be seen immediately as not merely morally bankrupt but financially bankrupt.

The US is in the business of murdering people. Given the hysterical nature of the Bush administration and, in particular, the latest "alert", we must conclude that it is getting harder and harder to come up with credible justifications for mass murder.

As for the terror alerts:

The present alert may well be real, but...there's this questionable track record of US terror alerts.

That's the price Americans will have to pay for having fallen for Bush's bullshit to begin with. I wish someone had read "The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf" to Bush when he very young and very stupid. Now, tragically for the world, he hasn't gotten any smarter.

Jen said...

I like the analogy of the fun house with mirrors.

With a predicted October Surprise, maybe we should be thinking more along the lines of a Haunted House instead of a Fun House, but then again ghosts are, for the most part, nicer than the horrors of Bushco's war machine.

Len Hart said...

Jen, I have at last figured out what happened to front porches. It was so obvious. Why didn't I think of it before?

Front porches were replaced by grand facades, i.e., false fronts!

New houses even boast of a Great Room. Everything now is done on an imperial scale. More, bigger, grander, greater, faster!

From the Americian Journal of Archeology:

When found in the central rooms of gymnasia of Roman Asia Minor, the multiple-column, multistory aedicular facade of the “marble style” has been thought to symbolize “the imperial cult.” Yet that design is never used for actual provincial temples dedicated to the worship of emperors. This article shows how the theory that aedicular facades set the scene for worshipping emperors lacks any foundation; the inscriptions, sculpture, and furnishings of the so-called Kaisersäle honor the patron deities and benefactors of the cities in question as much as the emperors, and have been taken to signify cult when they in fact do not. The meaning behind this ostentatious decor is then pursued beyond gymnasia, to theaters, bouleuteria, temples, gates, libraries, nymphaea, and even tombs. It was a sign of the theater, of Roman elite status, and even a form of conspicuous consumption; but many gods, personifications, and civic donors, not just the emperors, were associated with it.

Some things never change.

Vierotchka said...

The October surprise may well appear on August 22. Why do I say that? Go to this article on thinkprogress.com, click on the video screen to start it, and look at what is written at the bottom of the TV screen in the first seconds. On the Fox news screen in the video, at the beginning, it is written “IS IRAN PLANNING SOMETHING TERRIBLE FOR AUGUST 22?” How come such a precise date, and why in all-caps? I reckon this means that Bushco is planning something terrible for August 22 and is already planting the seeds of suspicion and accusation toward Iran in Fox’s viewers’ minds.

By the way, all the articles of all the blogs of my blog provider have vanished... I hope they have a backup and can restore all the articles, because my blog represents many hours of hard work on a daily basis.

Len Hart said...

Vierotchka,

From what I've been able to glean, a Wall Street Journal columnist —Bernard Lewis —wrote an article entitled August 22:Does Iran have something in store? —in which he strongly implies that Iran is planning to NUKE Israel:

Against the U.S. the bombs might be delivered by terrorists, a method having the advantage of bearing no return address. Against Israel, the target is small enough to attempt obliteration by direct bombardment.


This guy reveals no sources. Interestingly, meanwhile, all the the people who tried in vain to warn Bush that Saddam DID NOT have WMD have since stated that Iran is 10 yeas away from building a nuke of any sort, and most certainly one that would "obliterate" a target in Israel.

That FOX would pick up this and put it in "Second Coming" headlines is not surprising but troubling when the entire worlds seems but a single misstep from Nuclear disaster.

In the meantime, here's some info on Lewis: Bernard Lewis

Another chilling link: Nuclear Annihilation

Jen said...

I just want to share with you an article I found online (when searching for info about school design of all things) that takes one step further our previous discussion of how architecture and city planning has negatively changed our humanity.

Unhealthy By Design? Not If Cities Plan Liveable, Dense, Walkable Neighborhoods by Gail Goldberg (http://www.planningreport.com/tpr/?module=displaystory&story_id=1174&format=html)

"Planners by nature are sort of environmental determinists. We really believe that you are where you live. And that is a powerful concept with enormous responsibility. I have to tell you that because of that enormous responsibility, I felt really guilty when I saw the title, “Unhealthy by Design?” It made me think about what kinds of neighborhoods we have created in the past and what the unintended consequences were."

I think the unintended consequences have been dire, mostly because in the past we spent a lot of time planning for cars instead of for people."

Those sentences struck a chord with me, that we really do not realize the impact our society has done to people when we put materialism over humanity. Not only have we distanced ourselves from being communities where healthy relationships are created and maintained, but we literally have abandoned our health to make it easier to get around (and get away from each other)in our cars.

Vierotchka said...

Len, it stands to reason that neither Iran nor any other Arab or Moslem country would ever nuke Israel - there not only are so many Moslems and Arabs in Israel and the occupied territories, but the second most sacred place for Moslems is Jerusalem and the Dome. They would never do anything to destroy the Dome or kill untold thousands of Arabs/Moslems with a nuclear bomb or device. But of course, the naïve, the gullible, and the "true believers" cannot grasp such a simple concept. Furthermore, Iran hasn't attacked or invaded another country for centuries - doing so is not in their mentality nor in their culture. They have the right to develop nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes, and Iran is a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and has not broken it in any manner. Iran is no threat to anyone, so long as it is not attacked. If it is attacked, it will defend itself furiously and powerfully.

Vierotchka said...

On the other hand, the USA is also a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but it has broken that treaty a great many times.

Len Hart said...

Vierotchka, perhaps it is thought that Iran would use strategic nukes or bunker busters and spare the Temple. But —who knows what goes on inside the mind of a neocon? Clinton's good points aside, our current situation must surely be traced to the fact that the US has not had competent, "internationalist" leadership since Jimmy Carter managed to broker the Camp David Accords. The security of the world absolutely depends upon the US strengthening its ties with Europe, working throughout the Middle East as a truly HONEST broker, eschewing the temptation to prop up unpopular regimes wtih CIA skullduggery, the financing of death squads, and the shameless exploitation of drug trafficking and arms dealing. Reagan's ghost lives on in the ill will that Iran/Contra continues to earn us. God only knows how long it will take to live down lasting harm that Bush has done to the entire world. Perhaps, if we can just make it past August 22 without the world blowing up....

Fuzzflash said...

"We are, rather, trapped between fun house mirrors and expected to embrace it all as if it were real."

Roger that Len, suggest we continue to "throw stones".

Escalation in the M.E. ahead of the midterms is a gimme given BushCo's form to date. I make the timing of the recent U.K. "liquid terror" arrests as too close to Lamont's win to be coincidence. Especially in view of the hysterical msm shilling "A vote for Lamont is a vote for the terrorists". In England, excellent police work was fast forwarded due to political expedience(BushCo's and Blair's).

My jury's still out on the "Aug 22 surprise", and it leading to WW111 with nukes aplenty.

Len Hart said...

Fuzzflash: Especially in view of the hysterical msm shilling "A vote for Lamont is a vote for the terrorists".

If its entirely TOO coincidental, it's probably not a coincidence. That will be the GOP's downfall; they think we are as stupid as they are.