Monday, September 22, 2008


I’ve had an interesting weekend, and it’s brought up assorted thoughts.

Walls block things. But they also hold stuff up. Some walls are more or less decorative; you can take them out or punch holes in them if you need to or you want to. But other walls are carrying walls: they can’t be taken out or have holes punched in them because their structural integrity is what holds the building up. Or if you’re on a ship: when you say you think you’d like more room in this compartment, so we have to take this ‘wall’ out, and somebody suggests that this bulkhead is part of the watertight compartmentalization, then you’re best advised to work around it rather than punch through it. Otherwise, there’s no telling what will happen; or – rather – if you spring a leak or hit an iceberg, water will go where it’s supposed to be stopped from going, and your last condition will surely be worse than the first. And if you try to get your way by hiring an expert analyst who produces a graph and a paragraph or ten demonstrating that if everybody simply chooses to believe that the watertight integrity won’t be harmed, then everything will be well … well, that’s not going to work with watertight integrity. Some things on the planet just aren’t a matter of opinion, no matter how enlightened it considers itself to be.

We are currently seeing a variation on Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’. It’s the ‘banality of treachery’. Congress has been backing off its responsibilities for decades now. There are no purposely evil congresspersons, or relatively few of them anyway. They’re ingratiating, smile a lot, and – up until recently – would kiss any baby within range. Unable to keep all of Our Identities happy, they figured they’d just humor them with whatever laws would keep them from showing up outside the office door with cameras and handkerchiefs; meantime, the honorables would give up on trying to make it on a salary and the myriad small donations of lot of little people (who could mostly never be kept happy enough to cough up a few bucks for the re-election campaign). Instead, they’d sell themselves to the highest bidder, accepting perks and PAC contributions in exchange for legislation that will make the little people littler and the rich people richer.

But once the rest of the world recovered from World War 2 or started to really imitate American manufacturing – around the late ‘60s and early ‘70s – then what this country really needed was some serious spackling up so that it could buckle down to the job of keeping itself productive and solvent. But that would have been a lot of work – telling folks that they had to buckle down and spackle themselves up and keep their lives in order. Chances were nobody would get re-elected, and that wouldn’t be any democracy worth living, the pols figured. So they just kept trying to pass out gravy, enough to keep the little people happy anyway, while the rich got richer and kept contributing to PACs rather than pay any taxes, and the sands of Time kept running out. Until they finally stopped running out. And that’s where We are now.

But although there were a few chimps in Congress, and some genuinely nasty folks, most of the Congresspersons were nice enough. Just not really up to biting bullets – although they thought that selling the things, or spraying them around the planet, was not a bad business – especially since the military was one of the few ‘industries’ they had kept up. So bullets became Our only remaining industry. And bombs – which are just awesomely bigger bullets. More bang for the buck.

And as a neat twofer, the bullets could be used to get a hold of neat stuff that We would need to stay on top of the heap without actually producing anything of Our own. Thus the party could roll on and the nice incumbents could stay in the big house on the Hill. Where usually – the Beatles said – fools dwelled. Although in the Beatles’ vision, the fools could see the world going ‘round. And that appears not to be the case on Our Hill.

No funny moustaches, no thousand-flag rallies, no strutting chimpery in medal-bedizened uniforms, no screaming into microphones at volk and foe alike. Just nice folks who used to kiss babies and now heard all pain and sympathized enough to keep battalions of cameras happy. But then the rallies and the medals and the screaming came anyway. And the bullets. And the bombs.

Stuff happens. If the voters aren’t thinking anymore, then why should their representatives? Let’s be reasonable. Or, at least, let’s be nice. And sympathetic. Respect is a guy thing; sympathy is what makes the world go round. Nobody who hears and feels pain can really be bad. And nice people can’t do bad things. The Bible says they can, but really – no matter what folks say – how many can really live by the Bible? Better to say it’s a private matter, although just how much privacy a sensitive state can allow is a good question: a lot of un-sympathy can hide in the penumbras of privacy. That’s got to be policed.

So the rule of law and the rights of citizens and the shapes and structures of Constitutional order and a society and a culture built on some sense of order, and the economy, and the promises economical and political that sort of make up the American social contract … all went by the board. But not with any evil intentions. The whole thing slid out from under Us. We lost it in a fit of absence of mind. Or character. Or soul.

The generation of the Boomers was raised on TV. Since watching TV doesn’t require the complex activity of reading from the printed page, then a generation grew up having developed less and less of those remarkable parts of the brain that distinguish humans from the rest of the mammals. And from plants and rocks. Now there are generations growing up that read even less, and spend huge amounts of time with electronic gadgets stuck to their ears, gadgets that radiate – well, radiation – and that starts to have an effect on their brains. On top of the fact that they aren’t reading so much, and certainly not out of books, but rather with their eyes glued to electronic screens – that also radiate. On top of being young, these generations will approach adulthood – and voting age well before the adulthood – with their brains both underdeveloped and irradiated. They might have been better off with more sugar and junk food instead. Although, many of them are having their radiation and their cake as well.

Men are being prosecuted for sex crimes in record numbers. Often times, the alleged victim is not required to undergo inquiry because that would be an ‘insult’ and would ‘revictimize’ somebody who’s already been victimized once, allegedly. Imagine trying auto accident cases like that: one driver, if from a certain class or type, cannot be investigated because that would cause more ‘pain’ on top of the ‘trauma’ of the accident. The other driver, however, is presumed to be guilty and if he says otherwise, why that just proves he’s not only guilty but morally turpitudinous. How can you run a court system like that and expect it to be respected? And expect it to find the truth? He is also presumed to suffer no pain or trauma from the accident; so Superman is real after all. But will he help Us in Our present difficulties?

The Congressfolk apparently never watched vampire movies. You can’t just invite a vampire into the house and then expect to keep it confined in the living room. Once you’ve let the thing in, then there’s no telling where it will go and what it will do in your house. Or to anybody it finds in the house. You can’t make bad law to keep some of your voters or contributors happy, and expect that it won’t have some sort of virulent bad consequences here, there, and everywhere sooner or later. Bad consequences; just because you didn’t think of them, that doesn’t mean they won’t come. And they’ll probably bring in more of their kind to liven up the party – that’s what demons and vampires do. It’s in the Bible. About the demons, anyway.

The 1958 Ford, I saw one on the road over the weekend. I thought: it’s fifty years old now. When it was new, it looked so completely different from the 1908 Ford of fifty years before that, so completely different that the two vehicles looked like they came from different planets. And in ’58, they figured that by 2008 – and probably well before – the cars would fly. And float, if you wanted to order one like that. But the 2008 Ford doesn’t look so much different from the 1958 Ford. Not anywhere near as much difference as between the 1908 and the 1958. We haven’t just lost productive capability. We’ve lost creative capacity. We don’t create things any more – except for arcane financial ‘instruments’ and preventive wars that don’t work, for Us anyway. We’re like a beached whale: now the very weight of the massive body will crush it; it will crush itself to death. Even before it dries out. Corporate managers aren’t creative; they’re paid to be predictable and organized and to keep things moving efficiently. That’s not creativity. That’s not inspiration – and you’re not going to go too far up the ladder if they think you can get ‘inspired’. That makes you unpredictable. And unreliable. You must be predictable and knowable, totally so. ‘Mystery’ isn’t what managers like to run into. They run from it. They’re paid to. They’re trained to. They pull out any other wiring in themselves that would threaten that predictability. There are terrible forms of self-abuse. Terrible forms of self-treason. No wonder there’s so much treachery among Us. It’s in the air. But like air, so gentle and hardly noticeable, except in a breeze. Or in a hurricane. Or a tornado. And there are more of those now.

On any Saturday when the weather is decent, I like to take a walk in one of the park-like old cemeteries nearby. Graves going back 150 or 200 years. I take a player full of Civil War tunes; the cd with the soundtrack of Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary is especially good. And there are lots of Civil War graves: youngsters in their 20s, many of them: “Wounded Antietam in Maryland September 1862; Died Washington, D.C., December 1862. Age 20yrs”. I play the music and think of them. Pray for them, even. I think they hear it. Straighten the Memorial Day flag on the grave if it’s leaning over; they do now, this time of year. “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” … it came to me that you don’t hear that song much any more. Not in public. Not in parades or in public places. Not like you used to. But imagine the trouble you’d get into; try to count how many possible feathers you’d ruffle: African-American concerns that you’re making fun of slavery; Native American concerns that cavalry songs make light of their ancestral travails; newer immigrant concerns that it isn’t ‘their’ history; Southern concerns that you’re mocking them for losing the Civil War or for seceding in the first place; women’s concerns that Johnny is a male; ‘proper’ parents’ concerns that it’s ‘inappropriate’ to let children think about war and death and treachery and mystery (which is why they’ve clipped up fairy tales so that Snow White is just a nice girl who was taking a nap one afternoon and a hot dude with a great suit kissed her and woke her up – but they didn’t go out for mojitos) … sweet pumpkin pie, We could use some good music about now. Music that We can all get together with. Just what is holding Us together any more? Don’t say the almighty dollar.

What will We be able to bear – a country whose younger citizens aren’t aware of war or death or treachery or mystery? Will they grow up and suddenly master it all by osmosis? The Royal Navy had youngsters aboard early so that they’d grow up with the sea and with ships, so that they’d master them early. And be ready for the inevitable challenges. Where do 20-something slackers and 30-something adolescents come from? What makes them? A too-long-delayed encounter with the serious job of facing the seriousness of life seriously. And adults who conspire to shield them until they’ll never be able to catch up. Can you develop a self in the absence of encounters with the serious? The treacherous? The mysterious? The Ultimate? In their absence, just what will develop in there behind those still-bright eyes? What will not develop?

The sands of Time are running out all over the country. The lamps are going out all over the country. Let us be wise virgins. As best We can manage it.

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