Monday, July 28, 2008

BOTTOMING TO BE

In the June issue of Harper’s, in his ‘Notebook’ column, Mark Slouka perceptively raises the point that America is suffering from a superfluity of ‘deference’ and even ‘subservience’, and that this ominous tendency is threatening to undermine Our capacity to be a free People. We are, observes one letter-writer in the July-August issue, trapped in the toils of ‘an alarming slouch toward tyranny’. (http://www.harpers.org/archive/2008/06/0082039)

Why and how has this come to pass? We have to pose this to Ourselves, the media being no longer really interested in dealing with such ‘quaint’ questions.

Assorted possible answers are proposed. Myself, two images come to mind. First, the crowds yelling themselves hoarse as Hitler – in his gleaming open limo or just waddling along at the head of a gaggle of inferior, nattily uniformed demons – made his way through them. To be near him, to get his autograph (yup, even before Sinatra and the bobby-soxers), to hand him a bouquet of flowers (women only; Goebbels shrewdly saw that they made better worshipful admirers and they cried so impressively), and for the occasion – und only for ze occasion, versteh’? – it was even acceptable to press robustly against the restraining cordon of beaming, young SS troopers, their gleaming death’s head cap insignia smiling that inscrutable, patriotic smile.

Second, the former intelligence agent Ray McGovern being shushed by a toney assemblage of upscale Atlanta patriots (loyal now to the Stars and Stripes, not the Bars) as he arose to ask Donald Rumsfeld a question – if memory serves – about the validity of the intelligence (so-called) that was the excuse for the war in the East. ‘Dahlings, he’s positively making a spectacle of himself, and sooo disrespectful of nice Mr. Rumsfeld and – by extension – of the Leader himself. Lawd, lawd, how’d he evah git in heah?’ …

I must remember to have a prayer with General Sherman; We needn’t mourn the loss of Joe DiMaggio; wherever Joltin’ Joe has gone, what We really need is Sherman back. And all those steely-eyed, strong-souled boys in blue who, even if they never knew the blessings of the Ipod and text-messaging and child-sex-offense laws, accomplished more for the country than have all the newly-gated squires and dames from Atlanta to Houston. (Enron … why does that name ring a bell? Houston, we all have your problem now. )

There’s something in the human-animal, something primal and atavistic, that wants to be on the receiving end of power’s thrustful presence. This, I think, is what Ben Franklin knew when he said to the giddy crowd “You’ve got a democracy – if you can keep it”.

Because to be a citizen, and to be a People, each and all have to wage the long twilight struggle, in season and out of season, against the deep – not to say ‘natural’ – human urge to submit itself to something or someone more powerful, something or someone (ach!) that will take up the weight of all the responsibility for standing-to, each individual, and facing up to the project of being a mature adult, 24/7 and 365, until the Final Trumpet sounds.

And, equally primal, to do that receiving in a group - not only to do it, but to belong in a safe secure mass of others who are also doing it. This is a form of utter debasement not yet reached by the sex-offense laws. And probably never will be , because non-democratic governments thrive on this sort of mass gang-bang (no offense intended).

In fact, psychiatry might have something to say about this curious coincidence: that precisely as the citizenry is becoming more emotionally ‘patriotic’ it is also becoming more agitated and even enraged towards offenses-as-to-sex. If any single individual plopped himself down in a shrink’s office and displayed such a pattern of symptoms, he’d be in for a long series of sessions (if indeed, he were not immediately reported to the state for preventive confinement). Hell, you wouldn’t need much more than Psych 101 to notice the ‘syndrome’, if you remained mentally upright and could see with an unobstructed view.

But that’s the advantage of getting whacked-out in groups; it’s no longer a symptom, but a positive virtue. 'A toast to our Leader, dahlings – and with the good stuff, once the riff-raff are sent out to the parking lot to their kegs.' The Germans, at least, retained enough earthiness to toast their Fuhrer with beer. The hairless unter-demons of the Beltway require a classier brew. And their Leader, it appears, doesn’t do imported beer. But of course, it wouldn’t do for the Chief Patriot to be drinking somebody else’s stuff. Texans stand on their hind own legs, thank ya vurrry mutch.

Oy. And oy gevalt. Is this place beginning to resemble Babylon at its orgiest or what? Or Nero’s palace with BBQ sauce?

They knew, the Founders – for all the fact that they were thoroughly unenlightened and ‘men’ – that human nature being what it is, a democratic politics, a Republic, was going to have a hard time of it. They could only fondly hope and fervently pray and bust their chops to craft a Constitution that would support a People, a People that would support it … even against each individual’s deepest bad tendency to want to just say the hell with it, give it all over to Leadership, and occupy oneself with the thousand little dramas and soap-operas and quick yuks that dull any human life and hollow out any soul.

Wood must be hewed and water must be drawn in any human life. But that is only to support the fullness of human-ness, not to define it.

We are losing Our definition. Slipping out of focus. Slipping out of history. Into something far thinner and smaller and cheaper and unripe and un-mature.

Now them Kathliks knew, and the Protestant Reformers who sprang from them knew, and the Enlightenment generations who still lived in the glow of all that achievement knew, that the human being is a many-levelled thing. One could remain mired in one’s more primitive and atavistic sub-self, or one could recapitulate the ascending climb up the ladder of one’s being into more fully human forms of being one's individual self. It was that awareness – however dimly held – that fueled the early Republic’s sense that ‘America’ – in its form of government even more than in its citizenry – was truly a spiritual achievement. That form of government pretty much demanded of each citizen that s/he undertook that long climb, and sustained life at the higher levels of what a human being could be.

They could not imagine that God, that Beyond without which and without Whom no such achievement could be long sustained, would not ‘smile upon’ such a Project so well begun. With a classic Protestant reticence, they didn’t assert publicly that God’s grace – far more than His simple smile – would be required, 24/7 and 365, until the Final Trumpet sounded. And that God, having set this whole magnificent Project in motion, would be needed daily to wind the vital inner dynamic tension in each individual and in The People, to prevent the lessening of tension that would induce the long slide back into the mucky lowlands of primitive, merely organic functioning, bereft of vision and ideal and hope and courage and fortitude and faith. And, yes, an abiding, respectful Charity.

For long, their descendants didn’t fail to realize just how iffy a Project it was that called forth the greatest effort of their short, sharp lives. But facing ‘iffy’ without going all kablooey was a capacity that they could call upon; note those steely-eyed Civil War types, looking straight into the camera, not looking for sympathy or pity or for the shedding of a tastefully nostalgic tear, but rather asserting for whatever passersby among their descendants would come along at some long-future time their determination to stay with the Project come hell or high-water. It was God’s road or the low-road and they kinda didn’t intend to be crawling through no swamps of primality on all fours, dadblast it. Upon them all be great peace.

But now is – how to put it? – Now. What say We?

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