Wednesday, November 22, 2006

BOTH SIDES

Robert Lipsyte has a meaty piece called “Driving Values” on TomDispatch.com. I shall riff.

Lipsyte observes that the so-called NASCAR guys – raised up, he says, by “madcap” political scientists as a counter-weight to the now-classic Soccer Moms – are concerned for the “manly”, especially as that manliness manifests itself in working-class, mostly not-Northeastern, evangelical, often-rural gents.

It’s curious, that such a bunch would be raised up, as the country – in consequence (not necessarily unintended) of one of the Revolutions of the Identities – struggles with trying to incorporate less ‘macho’, more sensitive, caring, feeling habits of mind and heart. Well, actually only habits of heart, since ‘mind’ – being kinda inseparable from stuff like Thought and Reason and fact – is, not to put too fine a point on it, masculine.

We probably saw the first glimmers in those Burt Reynolds good-ole-boy movies of the mid-70s, that came out around the same time as the CB and trucker stuff (remember that song about truckers in a ‘convoy’?). There was a year there when Cadillacs (newly down-sized) came with a CB radio, tastefully incorporated into or under the dash.

Matters were no doubt moved along when the movie “Ordinary People” showed us the ideal of the Revolution: upscale, suburban professional types, well-groomed and tastefully graceful in their mildness of language, possessed of such cutting-edge but sensitive technology as computers (At home! On your desk!) and expensive foreign sedans. There wasn’t a damned thing ‘ordinary’ about them, and the movie should have been called “Tasteful People”. But that flick advertised what (see elsewhere on this site) the Democratic strategists had known (but had been keeping under wraps) for a while: white, northeastern workers were on the way out, and the Information Guy would be the ideal American male now, or he’d better be. And of course, if the northeastern urban industrial white male was now a bird in decline, where did that leave his even-earlier replaced cousin, the rural other-place male: the Midwestern or Western or Southern male?

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Revolution: the latterly-named males refused to go gently into that good night. They fought back – more out of instinct than strategy – by re-asserting the very characteristics that the Revolution was seeking to abolish. They would never have admitted it, might not have been able to do the processing sufficient to grasp the distinction between the category and just-plain-Commies, but those rural males were America’s first Kulaks. They didn’t ‘get it’? They got it, all right, and they didn’t like it and, like horses who sense that a purported ‘bridge’ is actually a death-trap, they wouldn’t be led, and – like the hardy stock from which they were descended, found their own way to keep moving forward. The nerve! In fact, they didn’t even ‘fight back’; rather, true to the American stereotype, finding themselves confronted by what was clearly a foreign language, they simply began repeating their own even more loudly.
It’s an unavoidable testament to the value of the American system of government that the males did not share the fate of the original Kulaks. Not that efforts were not made, and with the sustained collaboration of the highest of the government organs (so to speak). The reduction of the Kulaks to the status of sub-citizen was undertaken with the zeal and confidence of a Revolution assured of its Good Cause (which Cause, unarguably Good, pre-emptively baptized whatever Means were taken to further it). It is, in many ways, an exhilarating life, the revolutionary’s: you can feel good about yourself without having to wrassle with the mental hassles of ambiguity and complexity and evaluating alternatives and figuring consequences: a sort of justifiable – even justified – immaturity that deputizes you to do what has to be done, making mincemeat of anybody who doesn’t ‘get it’.

If the Information Male, raised up by the Revolution, acknowledged his creators, the Southern types didn’t at all; nor would they permit themselves to be made a laughing-stock such as the one incarnated in Archie Bunker; nor were they even momentarily stunned by the media-application of the ‘backlash’ bat full in the face, right between the eyes. In the process, as many missteps were made by the Resistance as by the Revolution. The ‘macho Guy’ now began to bray and brag almost as loudly as the shrill, lantern-jawed Feminists (I can’t keep track of which Wave it was then, although I know it wasn’t the currently-numbered Wave – about which, however, expert opinion differs), and each side demonstrated the lower range of its respective emotional, mental, philosophical, spiritual and cultural capabilities. Time and tide wait for no nation, however, and the world went on, and the great ship of the Republic began to fall off the wind.

As a generation before them had raised up the golden book of the Bible against the debauched godlessness of the Catholic immigrants piled like hogs in their filthy, smoke-choked cities who demeaned themselves to work for ‘salary’ and as slaves to machines, so too this new generation raised up not only a defense, but an alternative to the combined Revolutionary threat: the threat to their masculinity, their social order, their religion, their cultural folkways. And their womenfolk, many many of them, supported them.

Thus the NASCAR race-days Lipsyte describes: evangelical preachers in double-wide trailers setting up shop in the parking lot of the mega-racetracks, entire families and generations of families joining and pooling resources to come together, all to cheer on their heroes with a loud and almost-single voice … one of the closest modern approximations to medieval Christendom and its festivals that is to be found anywhere in Western civilization these days. If there were a Moscow to the Revolution, it would not be pleased. Medieval Christendom is right up there with “Men” as a toxic mis-step of History that the Revolution was designed to correct. But as is true of militaries, so too of Revolutions: no plan survives its first contact with reality. It was the Revolution’s added misfortune, however, to have based itself on the assumption that there is no such thing as ‘reality’, let alone Reality; and so what has come to be called the NASCAR world had time to effloresce. And so it has.

In a way the attractiveness of NASCAR may be similar to the Democrats’ present popularity: they are not their opposite. The Democrats are not the Republicans and NASCAR is not the Revolution of the Identities. That in itself has its charms: keeping out of the path of the Revolution for the past decades has been like those New Yorkers who ran down alleys to avoid King Kong, and the Revolution has had some serious consequences for us as individuals and as a society, not only in the domestic arena but in foreign policy as well.

It’s pleasant to be at ease in a public gathering, rather than walking – however ably – the type of social tightrope usually experienced only by State Department officials at techy diplomatic receptions. It’s pleasant to feel like you are in a big bunch of people with whom you palpably share a great deal, rather than gliding carefully over ice so thin and changeable that you can’t for the life of you imagine why you didn’t stay home, where it’s not only warm but predictable and reliably solid. The revolutionary retort to that last point, of course – and it’s hardly irrelevant – is that what feels predictable and solid to an ‘oppressor’ feels confining and hopeless to an oppressee. Which is as may be. But the revolutionary approach to effecting its desired changes has not been conducive to a free society; Political Correctness was precisely the poisoned fruit of that tree: the citizenry of this purported democracy could not be left free to doubt or to express negative thoughts.

That’s the nature of revolutions based upon intangibles. If a revolution were based upon the fact that water freezes at 12 degree F, not a few folks would quickly work out for themselves that the revolution was not well-grounded. But an intangible poses an entirely different problem: if the ground of the revolution can’t be proven one way or the other, than there’s little chance of folks being willing to go through all trouble of making or allowing the revolutionary changes. So the revolution has to keep folks from testing or discussing the changes. And the very ground of experimentation – reality, testable and accessible – must be discredited. Feeling rather than Thinking needs to be made the default mode of the population, since there’s less chance of obstruction arising against the revolution’s programme.

But in the land of the NASCAR-ites the malignancies of the assorted Revolutions have not been able to gain much foothold. And, as afore-stated, it’s sort of a relief to be among this bunch. It’s a simpler world. A more open world. And it’s a siren song: you find yourself wondering if it isn’t possible to live in a simple, solid world, free of the endless revolutionary cautions and traps, the ever-gnawing anxiety that one will be caught saying the wrong thing … and duly reported … or sued. Flags are freely displayed, and the type of patriotism that flourishes by displaying itself pervades the atmosphere. There are as many if not more Confederate Stars-and-Bars than there are Stars-and-Stripes, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference; for the purposes at hand the two flags appear to be interchangeable, and are displayed with equal pride. Which makes one wonder what these folks’ great-great-great-grandfolks would say. But then again, the present generation could defend itself by pointing out that for all practical purposes the South h-a-s won, insofar as running the ‘gummint’ and the military goes. And given the alternative - the Revolutions’ smiley-face, treacherous new world – that sorta could seem like a good idea.

But it still doesn’t feel right. You can’t help remembering what those Stars-and-Bars fought for. You can’t help remembering those Southern sheriffs munching popcorn and chawin’ Red Man in a courtroom where they themselves were on trial, possibly in front of their brother-in-law. You can’t help remembering that as a kid your parents never left the Interstate down south, stopping only to get gas at a plaza and getting right along; like travelers trying to get through Transylvania before sundown. It wasn’t just that your ethnicity would probably cancel out your whiteness. It was a visceral Southern European aversion to police states and the inevitable violence simmering – like molasses – just beneath the surface of the magnolias, the small town picket fences and – most surely – just the other side of those roadside warnings about God’s terrible love. Catholics knew that they and God were in it for the long haul, and it bred a certain patience. Italian peasants knew that even Jesus only had to spend 33 years down here and never got a chance to develop the ability to wait; always a Kid, that One. Even the priests were there – like a princess marrying into a royal dynasty – simply to provide the physical body that would administer the sacraments; what did you expect – Heaven? That’s some other place, and not here. Here being: in this world, in this life.

Two things brought violence of a quality and quantity that no community could handle: police states and revolutions. No peasant worth his or her salt wanted to see either one. As the Russian peasants put it: May God bless and keep the Czar, far away from us. These people down here in the south didn’t have patience: even their liquor was made in a hurry, and who could ever expect them to make even a half-decent wine? Best to get past here, today. Let them be. The nice thing about America was that a car could get you out of there in one day; who knows how many travelers died in Transylvania because the horses had to rest a while.

And actually, to the Catholic-trained mind, there are a couple-three things that make you nervous. There’s this evangelical-Southern-fundamentalist immersion in the Present and in the flat-surfaced world of Appearances: God gave us this so it must be good.
There’s that lack of depth to their world as they live it day-to-day; no perspective, and so no proportion. No complexity. Flat. But, of course, much more simple. And yet it seems as if, in order to compensate for that lack of dimension, their religion envisions a vivid, hugely violent End-Time, and it might be tomorrow. Or in a minute or two. So they live a flat life, but one backlit luridly by an End-time that would put Cecil B. DeMille to shame. It’s like heavily peppering a bowl of hot water and calling it soup.

And tied in with this is the tendency of this type of religion to make a sacrament of whatever lies to hand, i.e. those Appearances: our Way, our Kind, our Army, our Nation, our chili. What else is there? The Catholics developed ‘sacraments’ because humans need such things: there’s a deep human need (Catholics don’t mind: God created people) for a palpable, visible sense of God’s Presence in their lives. They don’t necessarily need a dragon-slayer intervention like the Apocalypse (and is it me or do these video-games kids play pretty much conceive of the world and existence in much the same way as fundamentalists?); Presence, not Retribution, is just fine, thank you, Lord. After all, if God takes it into the Divine Mind to start retributing, then Catholics pretty much agree with Saint Peter: who the hell of a-n-y of us is going to be able to stand? So no sane human being can wish for God to come in and make that final accounting, not unless that human is crazy. The fundamentalists have cut that Gordian knot by claiming that God will give them a free pass because they’re ‘saved’. So it’s sorta like when the earthly Saigon falls, the Fundamentalists/Americans will get choppered out just in time. Neisss. Yah. And so, not having to worry about accountability, they’re free to indulge that native violence that lurks like a croc under the placid, sticky-sweet surface of their small-towns and their howdy-doo smiles. I think the lemonade is poisoned.

And how can we forget what slavery did to them? Not to the slaves (bad bad bad enough) but to the southerners themselves: you claim to be god-fearing and yet you enslave people who have to live among you, and you do it for centuries and generations, well then how in hell do you keep going to church on Sunday? By claiming that if you just go to the trouble of getting into the magic club, then that gives you a free pass. You went and got ‘saved? Then you’re home free. Go do what you do so vigorously, now that you’re saved. Sorta like what folks felt like when they got their Nazi Party card, back in the day. You’re in – rawk awnnn! Ach ja! Funny how the world moves.

And there’s that black&white vision of life. Which they got from … hmmmm. Where? From the black and white experiences of the southern past? Partially, certainly. But it’s such an undeveloped (dare we say ‘unevolved’?) form of processing information. And when you’re already operating in a universe for which your mental map is only two-dimensional, then you’re trying to navigate in deep space with a world-view and maps based on the assumption that the earth is flat and the universe revolves around it. If you do that too much, you might think you can deal with ‘foreign affairs’ by taking your army and sending them places, and people there will automatically defer to them as liberators.

And there’s that win-lose element of NASCAR-ing (and that Friday night football they all like down there). The Catholic mind does not accept that life is a win-lose proposition. Such an either-or is simplistic and it’s static. Simplistic because a 100-0 score is almost impossible to rack up in this life; and static because – unlike the games and the movies – there is never ever an ‘end’. A) Whomever you’ve beaten (and if you’ve beaten that whomever through dishonesty or lethal violence this ‘goes double’, as the kids say) or his heirs and assigns or allies or anybody else who feels the urge is going to come after you for payback. B) There is another World in this life, and it is Populated, and They take very serious Notice, and a dim view of our Badness in this life, and They can Express Themselves in our world; Arrangements, as they say, can be made. And even if in the eyes of the foolish nothing happens unless we see legions of fire-breathing dragon-angels trooping across the sky in column of fours with sabers drawn, yet They are unsleeping and keep very accurate score on very permanent tablets of stone, our misdeeds inscribed by quillpens of fire. Nor does the Catholic mind for a single minute imagine itself to be in possession of a ‘free pass’ or a “00-anything” classification that would permit then to do Anything and escape Everything. “Saved” is for settlers in old Westerns. Real people are lucky if they don’t screw up more folks than they help. And that goes for their clergy, natch. It goes without saying that such an approach is gall and wormwood to the saved.

And the preachers chaplain-ing the NASCAR-ites? With what? There are no sacraments. There is only the furniture of the flattened Present, uninformed by the perspective of any difference or any past, and any concept of Above drained of significance by their having been ‘saved’, thus Deputized, thus (like those sheriff-guys in the old newsphotos) above the law because they a-r-e the Law. And this doesn’t happen when their preachers get to combine the worst of both worlds and put on military uniforms? Sit in the mud after a hellish couple of weeks of patrol and listen to a purported man-of-God discourse on the glories of the M-14. But what else has he got? You’re here and that’s all there is: if you’re saved, then you’re Deputized, so go out and kill, imitating courageously the horrible righteous fierceness of the Avenging Angels in Revelations; and anybody you declare killable, so be it – your vengeance is God’s vengeance, and your will is God’s will. (Jesus, not even the Nazis claimed that; not even with ‘Gott mit Uns” on their uniform belt buckles). Is it any wonder we’re in the mess we are in Iraq?

We have sent our children into that maw – and I’m not talking about Iraq; I’m talking about that set of mind and heart and soul. AND I can’t help thinking that if we were winning over there, then the NASCAR-ites wouldn’t be at all perturbed by the working out of God’s vengeance. But then again, Madeleine Albright thought that a couple-three hundred thousand of dead children were an OK price to pay. Of course, she had meant Iraqi children. Yes, the Revolution of Woman has certainly brought us a kinder, gentler world. No wonder the NASCAR-ites haven’t noticed it.

And yet there is something so human in the attempt of the NASCAR-ites to get close to Seriousness, to Clarity, to Focus, to Purpose. They watch those cars zooming around (and whacking each other) and I think of Spaniards at bullfights: watching the struggle and – indispensably – the Death, and drawing inspiration therefrom. Some sort of inspiration. It’s impressive. But then, I ask if there isn’t some serious growing yet to be done if an individual or a culture has to watch (or make) some life Die in order to feel itself alive, to feel itself present to itself, to feel itself in the Presence – even – of Life or of God. A vivid, violent, totally-win-or-totally-lose mindset and heartset and worldview … is going to do stuff to you, and you’re going to wind up doing stuff to anybody who gets in your way, or even just in your life.

And yet the bullfight culture – at least – seems to have realized that down there in the corrida the real fight was not between the bull and the man but between the man and himself. T-h-a-t was the first fight, the real fight. Is the fundamentalist faith of the NASCAR-ites strong enough to platform that type of self-improvement? Self-mastery? I tend to think not. Why grow up if you’re already ‘saved’? And if you can be Taken-Up before supper tonight? Maturity as a concept as well as a goal collapses in the face of ‘being saved’. If the Catholic mind could never resolve the relationship between maturity and sanctity, doesn’t the fundamentalist mindset refuse to acknowledge the problem in the first place?

And yet, where in this Republic a-r-e you going to find decent growing ground for self-mastery and maturity? Surely not in the precincts of the Revolution(s) or any of the precincts currently occupied by its agents. Is American culture presently able to support any aspiration to self-mastery at all? Surely the Revolutionaries do not want it any more than the Fundamentalists, and for much the same reason: they don’t see it as necessary. The Fundamentalists don’t see it necessary because they’re already ‘saved’ into Heaven; the Revolutionaries because Heaven is here, the personal is political, there is only the two-dimensioned universe in which the political is the weapon, the objective, the hope, and the fulfillment. And both see themselves as Deputized by the Goodness of their Cause, such that whatever they have to do is automatically Good because of the Cause for which it was done (as in: perpetrated).

There’s a curious similarity to the world of the NASCAR-ites and the world of the Revolutionaries. In both there is the mistaking of Feeling Good with Doing Good, and the collapse of doing Right into doing Good. And the Feeling is increasingly coming to eclipse the Thinking and the (self-) Judging. Between the crowds of ball-capped, joyously baying NASCAR-ites and the crowds moaning and swaying in unison at Princess Di’s funeral there is a fundamental similarity. And it does not bode well for the Republic or for Democracy.

Both the NASCAR-ites and the Revolution(s) offer us poison, whether thickly sweetened with the molasses of sentimentality or buried in the spicey frisson of utter liberation. And since each Party has chosen one or the other as its ‘base’, and embraced the consequent deformities and called them good, then the Republic is in danger of being pulled apart from this internal struggle (if events beyond the Republic don’t move in such a way as to entoil it first). And The People, if there are not enough Citizens, cannot exist. And the darkness will truly come.

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