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
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