7/09/2002

like lambs to the slaughter

At the airport in Munich, everybody going on to the States had to be practically strip-searched. Well, it’s our patriotic duty now. The thing of it was, the Americans saw that the security staff was making everybody take off their shoes, so they were taking theirs off while they were still in queue. The foreigners in the queue were like, you gotta be kiddin me! I realized it was all because of that cunt with the exploding sneakers a couple weeks after the WTC thing. Thank god he didn’t smuggle explosives in a vial up his arse is all I can say. There was a Britney Spears lookalike ahead of me with a German Russell Crowe. The German had about three million dollars worth of digital gadgetry in his carry-on bag. I wanted to kill him and take his stuff. She kept asking him, kind of rhetorically, I guess, if everybody had to take their shoes off, or what? Like he knew. There were no signs or anything either. But like a true patriot, she took hers off before anyone asked her to do so. Like lambs to the friggin slaughter. I, of course, did not.

The other thing was, when they were about to be frisked (yes, frisked) the Americans assumed the position like they were old hats. I mean, like they’d spent ten years incarcerated, or something. There was a big fat blond chick and to watch her taking the position you’d have thought she’d been arrested a hundred times. When it was my turn, I put my carry-on bag on the conveyer belt, but I didn’t take off my sandals. If they’re going to make you take off your shoes the least they can do is provide you with slippers or something. I mean, the floor was filthy. At any rate I was not about to take them off unless asked nicely. The woman pointed with her little wand (the one they use when they’re frisking you), and grunted. I said, pardon? Then she said, your shoes. I said, yes? She said, can you take them off, please? I said, oh, sure.

Then she directed me to one of her colleagues, a middle-aged bloke, who frisked me. But I am not a criminal, and did not assume the position. The position is arms held at a ninety degree angle from the body, palms down. I stood in a relatively normal posture, and made him ask me to raise my arms, which I did, but at about 45 degrees, which is all that’s really necessary, I’m sure, and with palms out. Basically I was shrugging. Like Christ shrugging. He was nice, though, and because he could see I was no sheep, he treated me with a little deference. He frisked me almost apologetically, which is how it should be done under such circumstances, because regardless of the reason, it is an imposition, bordering on a violation. And of course, he felt me up. I mean he grabbed my balls and everything. But that’s his job. Maybe I should apply for an airport security position. Must make a note.

7/07/2002

blogosophy

I was on the internet last night, looking at blogs.

There seem to be two types (and people are people, even in cyberspace, so the distinction is very, very important online): there are proper blogs and journals. The former consist mainly of very short entries with links to something sort of kooky the blogger saw somewhere on the ‘net. This type seems to be a favorite of programmers who spend all day in a cubicle surfing the ‘net, and want to share all the kooky stuff they find there with other bloggers.

It becomes a sort of competition (like I said, people are people) as to who can find the kookiest stuff. And that’s basically the extent of it. The mentality is much the same as with otherwise clever people who watch too much TV, and justify it by their constant criticisms of how stupid it is. Well, of course it is. We don’t all that proof. For example, one blokes got a site, and recently he posted a link to another site with the URL geekissues.org, which is just a huge storehouse for scraps of hacker dialogue that hackers thought were particularly funny and quoteworthy. The snippets run from the rather esoteric (absolutely indecipherable script for the uninitiated) to the mundane. And example of the latter:

weDge: So I had a girlfriend for all of 9 months. She dropped by one afternoon when I was sick with a pan of brownies and a video tape with the simpsons on it (my favorite show). so I start eating the brownies and turn on the tape. midway through it, it cuts to her sucking off some dude. he nuts in her mouth, she looks at the camera, and says ‘you're dumped. enjoy the brownies’ - and spits the mouthful of cum into a bowl of brownie mix. fucked up huh? I want to die.

This is actually the snippet the blogger had linked to for our amusement. He wondered if it wasn’t just a sort of urban legend. Maybe. I’d never heard the verb ‘to nut,’ so that was interesting. And it was amusing, don’t get me wrong. So I had a look at some others. There were some quite funny ones, I thought, like the following:

madthink: what does putting sugar in someones gas tank do
maff: I heard when you start the engine cinnamon rolls come out
maff: with frosting and everything
madthink: i need to get revenge in the worst way
maff: cinnamon rolls arent really revenge

But after reading ten or fifteen, patterns started to emerge, and you started to see certain motifs, and the motifs quickly turned into clichés, and then it was boring. First you had hackers, and they were all about breaking the rules. They had this sort of outlaw mentality. But now you’ve got all these kids who want to be hackers, so, like, the original hackers had to think up some sort of rules of etiquette that you had to follow if you wanted to join their little club.

There’s a particular type of hacker humor, and you should adhere to it. If you don’t know the secret handshake you can’t logon to their club. I mean, people are people, right?

But blogging on the whole is like that. There is a certain sensibility, and a certain sense of humor amongst ‘real’ bloggers, and it’s partly to distinguish them from the imposters, the Johnny-come-latelies, who think all you’ve got to do is jot down your thoughts on any given day, and then call it a blog. So, as you’d expect, there are bloggers who’ve appointed themselves judges of the best and worst blogs online. It’s like that.

Then there are people who actually have a life, or seem to, and their blogs (which aren’t considered blogs by ‘real’ bloggers, but rather ‘journals’) are much more interesting, on the whole. I mean there’s only so much to be gained from yucking it up over fake pics of the president nude, or links to sites selling prosthetic foreskin (‘the man hood’ it’s called). Yes, it’s funny, but it’s not that funny.

The ‘journals’ are only as compelling as the personalities of the people keeping them, of course, and the stories they tell. But the main difference is, you feel you’re actually getting a glimpse into someone’s world, and not just their cubicle. The tone also varies a bit, according to mood, whereas it seems a lot of blogs are stuck in smarty-pants mode.

They really are apples and oranges, when you think about it, though, with utterly different aims. I guess I favor the so-called journals because they’re about someone. You can see pictures of their friends, their dog, or pictures of trees, or the sky, or the sea, from their eyes. While proper blogs seem to be stuck in one groove, the journals can be unpredictable. They’re proof of intelligent life in the universe. And that’s a damn sight tougher to prove than that there are a lot of silly, stupid people out there selling buttsicles, for example, or prosthetic foreskins, or whatever. I mean, so what?

7/05/2002

Steering Wheel

My New York City grad student, Tom, has sent a poem. He said my little essay had echoed a lot of the themes in it. Actually he used the phrase ‘dovetail,’ as in ‘a lot of the themes in your essay seemed to dovetail with the poem.’

STEERING WHEEL

In the rear view mirror I saw the veil of leaves
suctioned up by a change in current
and how they stayed up, for the allotted time,
in absolute fidelity to the force behind,
magenta, hovering, a thing that happens,
slowly upswirling above the driveway
I was preparing to back clear out of—
¬and three young pine trees at the end of that view
as if aghast with bristling stillness—
and the soft red updraft without hesitation
aswirl in their prickly enclosing midst¬—
and on the radio I bent to press on,
a section with rising strings plugging in,
crisp with distinctions, of the earlier order.
Oh but I haven't gotten it right.
You couldn't say that it was matter.
I couldn't say that it was sadness.
Then a hat from someone down the block
blown of, rolling—tossing—across the empty macadam,
An open mouth. with no face round it,
O and O and O and O—
¬‘we have to regain the moral pleasure
of experiencing the distance between subject and object,’
—me now slowly backing up
the dusty driveway into the law
composed of updraft, downdraft, weight of these dried
midwinter leaves,
light figured in too, I'm sure, the weight of light,
and angle of vision, dust, gravity, solitude,
and the part of the law which is the world’s waiting,
and the part of the law which is my waiting,
and then the part which is my impatience—now; now?—

though there are, there really are,
things in the world, you must believe me.

I have to admit, I love the poem. It had an undeniable, immediate effect on me. Not quite like Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Siege, which, when I last read it gave me goosebumps. Each and every line. But not unlike it, either. Except that this is a plea, it is a wish, a hope, and Siege isn’t. Siege is a siege.

I’m still trying to puzzle out what this poem has to do with me, though. Poems are funny. I mean, Siege is pretty straightforward. ‘This I do being mad…’ But this is a horse of a different color. It appears for all the world to be about the poet backing out of his driveway on a windy day. In Siege, you can be fairly sure ‘baubles’ means baubles, for example, and ‘Death’ is death. But here you’ve got all sorts of things that presumably stand for other things. Or maybe not.

The poet (some chap by the name of Graham, apparently) does say ‘You couldn't say that it was matter./I couldn't say that it was sadness.’ Which might lead you to believe the poem’s about how material things have another level at which they can be experienced.

The first eleven lines are a fairly straightforward description of a phenomenon, the aforementioned wind. But add to this the fact that at the time he’s backing out of the drive, and seeing all of it in his rearview mirror. And then, in line twelve, he switches on the car radio, where he hears music ‘crisp with distinctions, of the earlier order’ (it is not entirely clear to me here, however, what the significance of the comma in this line is). This reinforces the theme of looking back, both in space and time, one a physical act, the other a mental one.

In line 15 the description ends, and the poet laments he has not ‘gotten it right.’ The most mundane physical phenomena defy description. Or perhaps it is their effect on us that does.

The hat is the clearest, most consciously drawn metaphor in the poem, aside from the trees ‘standing aghast’. And here, I’m quite sure, it stands for something standing for something. The ‘O and O and O and O’ while it fits nicely into the mood of the poem (queer, uncanny, revelatory—think of Munch’s The Scream), is there to reinforce the simple fact that we quite naturally tend to see in the thing more than the thing itself. This is the very essence of poetry, I suppose, and of language generally. Thus the figure, really the letter O, that makes the sound of O, which requires that one make one’s mouth into the shape of an O. That’s the real gem of the poem, in fact. That’s the simple, perfect thing. It’s also the moment when things crystallize, leading to the poet’s revelation that ‘we have to regain the moral pleasure/of experiencing the distance between subject and object.’ Between self and other. There is a world of physical laws that we are a part of, though we are insulated from it in our modern world. We see it from within the shell of our technological, ‘made’ world (from inside the car), reflected, refracted through (the) media (the rearview mirror). But we mustn’t forget it really is there.

But there’s something more here, too. In the plaintive note of those last lines—’…you must believe me.’ Like the prophet whose message falls on deaf ears. Isn’t the poet saying that the real world, the world of phenomena, of physical laws, of objects and others, is always reasserting itself? That we ignore it our own peril? Our moral peril?

And why is the poem called The Steering Wheel, if not for the fact that this is where the will and the world of phenomena intersect (in the extended metaphor of the poem, that is)? It is the necessary physical apparatus that allows us to ‘turn’ the will into the act, without which we cannot affect the will at all.

Hmm. Strangely gratifying, a little Sunday morning poetry analysis. The mechanics of poetry are very interesting to me. I mean, the assumption is that somewhere in the unconscious mind, the message is graspable, and that’s what moves us, without our really being able half the time to say why. The language of this poem, and its various metaphors are not opaque, or even abstruse. But the minimal effort to piece them together is too much sometimes, though if I feel something, I usually take the time.

7/04/2002

homeward bound

I’m making preparations for a trip back to the States. I’ll spend what remains of the month of July and most of August in New England. Because I don’t get back to the States very often, it always takes a bit of time to adjust to the prevailing realities there, which don’t always jibe with perceptions elsewhere, to say the least. Especially since the events of September 11th.

I was in Boston that day, but returned to Budapest not long after. I had a visitor from the States in October, whom I met at the airport. We shared a taxi back to town with a handsome Israeli who told us he was happy that the events of 9/11 had finally revealed to Americans the extent to which our fate as a nation is intertwined with Israel’s. Interestingly, my friend from America rejected out of hand the idea that the attack on America had anything at all to do with the conflict in the Middle East. In fact, it seemed to me that he resented the Israeli for trying to appropriate an American tragedy for his own purposes.

(But it could also have been that he was jealous of the Israeli for having caught my fancy. Unfortunately, as I later discovered, the Israeli was much more interested in cakes than cocks. We spent a great deal of time together, the Israeli and I, strolling from café to café, eating cakes and talking about every conceivable aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I managed to maneuver him into my boudoir a couple of days after my American friend had vacated the premises, but all he did was stare up at the ceiling dreaming of cakes. I think it’s unhealthy, this kind of behavior, and more than a little antisocial.)

But back to the topic at hand. In the days and weeks that followed the events of 9/11, I looked on, in, let’s call it ‘restrained horror,’ as the tragedy was reduced to little more than farce by the media. True, the first days were filled with confusion, which was fitting. Anguish and fear and even a strange euphoria like after a terrible storm, when you climb up out of the cellar and stare with wonder at a world totally changed. It is the most human thing in the world to feel most alive in the face of death. There is always the promise of rebirth after such violence. A rebirth through a reciprocal violence.

At any rate, it seemed that reality itself had collapsed with the towers, that what Slavoj Zizek (who can always be relied upon for an…erm…different perspective), borrowing from Peter Sloterdijk, called the ‘sphere’ of reality had been punctured, our bubble had burst. The events of that day threatened to undermine not only American security but, on a very intimate level, American reality. For Zizek the message was basically, to quote his favorite sci-fi flick, The Matrix: ‘welcome to the desert of the real.’

Zizek has written a lot about The Matrix. I had never seen it, though not out of any sense of conviction, as with Schindler’s List. I had studied Jewish philosophy and religious thought for two years under a brilliant rabbi at Indiana University. I was always front and center for his lectures, and when he really got worked up into a froth you ended up totally drenched in his spittle. But somehow, you felt cleansed. I never got better than an A- from him, but to his credit he made you feel that you had really earned whatever mark he saw fit to give you, even if my more brilliant classmates groused that you were only actually worthy of a B+ at best.

As for The Matrix, I just hadn’t gotten round to seeing it. But the other day I had a bit of time on my hands and popped into the video store. I had very much enjoyed the fireworks in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (particularly between the young woman and her beau in the desert, in what must be one of the best love/hate relationships in the hstory of cinema), and had heard that The Matrix was full of similarly spectacular stunts. Not nearly enough of them, as it turned out. But never mind.

There was a lot to like about The Matrix, but it didn’t go half as far as it might have. I can definitely see what Zizek got all hot and bothered about. The concept was kind of cool. But what I found really interesting was Keanu’s hair. He goes through four distinct hairstyles in the film. I’m not a big Keanu Reeves fan, but I’ve got to admit, he’s ravishing all slathered in afterbirth, and totally plucked. That was the real revelation for me.

So Zizek says American’s are living in the world of the Matrix, and that the Third World is the Desert of the Real. This is not, I’m quite sure, what the filmmakers had in mind, and Zizek isn’t saying it was. He’s not working from the perspective of art imitating life, but the other way round. The analogy is not very precise, and therefore not entirely convincing. The essence of it is indisputable, though. Americans have indeed been living in a bubble, in isolation not only from the rest of the world but from reality itself.

Why else would the questions ‘how could they?’ and ‘why us?’ have become the mantra of aftershock? Suicide missions are not foreign to western, not to mention Christian experience, with its long history of mortification and martyrdom. Nor, until very recently (apparently) was it inconceivable that one might risk certain death for a cause. In fact, the masses of firefighters who perished in the towers were on a sort of suicide mission. ‘Why us?’ Was an even more facile question. Both questions envisioned a psychological answer, rather than a moral one. Both conceive of the incident as a personal affront rather than a political assault.

Thus the events of that day threatened not only a financial crisis, but an existential one (and indices like ‘consumer confidence’ show how intimately wed the two realms actually are). It seemed very important in the days following to emphasize normalcy at all cost. In fact, normalcy meant Gallup polls, which established immediately (literally within hours of the attacks) that 86% of Americans saw them as the incident as an act of war. The parade of percentages was as comforting, in its way, as exchange rates are for tourists who feel threatened in a foreign land. Remember Debra Winger in Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky, freaking out in the market? In fact, the inane injunction to ‘buy anything, no matter how small,’ to ‘show the terrorists that they could not destroy our way of life,’ was a victory for the enemy, in effect proving the moral point they’d sought to make.

For me, the steady stream of percentages, statistics, and dollar signs was the most horrifying of all. I don’t think that this reflected the vernacular experience of the tragedy. In fact, I think the grief was, as grief is, inexpressible. The outrage demanded, as outrage does, a reciprocal violence. That is the human logic of this sort of thing. And to the administration’s credit, they pursued it, as they had to, in the most responsible way a modern super-state could. Almost too responsibly, if you want to know the truth. Had this happened fifty years ago, there would have been no Camp X-ray. The prisoners would all have hanged by now. The lawyers would not have had a chance to sink their teeth into them.

I don’t want to seem as though I’ve just taken a sharp turn to the right, but part of the problem with American freedom in this day and age is that it’s been bought on credit. My Israeli friends, both male and female, know the cost of freedom. They saw the conflagration immediately for what it was. Because they see the same thing every day, albeit on a much smaller scale. They also know the moral cost of their freedom. They know the complexity of the situation cannot be reduced to platitudes. That freedom means choices, it’s true, but not between Coke and Pepsi. Real choices. Hard choices. Ugly choices. That’s how it is in the Desert of the Real.

I was at the cancer clinic in Boston that day. That morning we’d heard that one of the male nurses, a terribly handsome young man named Michael, had killed himself. There was speculation that it was because his boyfriend had left him. Just as the head nurses in the infusion room were debating over how best to break it to the rest of the staff, there was a newsflash on the television in the waiting room. Flight 11 had just slammed into the North Tower.

‘Geez, would you look at that.’
‘Yikes.’

Do you remember the nation frozen in panic when eighteen minutes later it became apparent that it was no accident? And that there was no place to run and hide. Not for the general population, at least. Do you remember how, for hours, the nation’s leadership disappeared down a rabbit hole?

But we still had Peter Jennings. We’ll always have Peter Jennings. Babbling about the Space Shuttle Challenger. And about how it’s true that Arabs have a different regard for life.

Staring in dumb disbelief. Wondering who would come to the rescue. Who would fight for our freedom. Maybe we should go out and buy something. Yes, that’s the answer.

I remember one of the Hispanic RNs complaining bitterly that the President had been spirited away to somewhere safe, while her children remained across town in school, vulnerable to the whims of any old terrorist who happened along. The nurses were in a spot. Though they felt reality was crumbling, like the rest of us, they still had treatments to administer. They could not drop what they were doing and run to their loved ones during what, for all we knew, might have been The End (maybe it does end in a bang, after all, we were thinking, but no).

She was also quite sure that Mr. Bush had ordered the interception of United Flight 93 headed for the White House, and that this meant he believed his life was worth more than the forty-odd lives lost in that crash. Her certainty that the government would sacrifice the lives of its citizens in such a situation, and that there was something terribly amiss in such an equation, was telling.

There was a young black man with dreads delivering blood and platelets in a blue Igloo cooler packed with crushed ice, who dropped into the infusion room. Within an hour of the collapse of the towers he had come up with an airtight conspiracy theory. It had something to do with a massive insurance scam.

The reason I mention these two particularly is that their faith that if given the chance their government would fuck them was so total the government’s reaction didn’t seem to surprise them in the least. I mention their race because it is not incidental to their sentiments on this issue.

We had gone through the looking glass, that much was clear. We had seen realized, at a terrible cost, a Hollywood fantasy of destruction—our fantasy. The visions of hell-fire that had delighted us in blockbusters like Escape from New York and Independence Day. The ‘return to normalcy’ (which consisted of official pleas that we go out and ‘buy something, anything, no matter how small’) only made things seem all the more surreal. Was that really what constituted ‘our way of life’?

By the next day things seemed, strangely back to normal, in a queer kind of through-the-looking-glass way. There were bits of entertainment news now mixed in with the interminable updates on the smoldering ruins of Manhattan. I stood in the waiting room with a young woman and a young man, watching news of rumors of Whitney Huston’s untimely demise, due to drugs or anorexia, or something. The young woman looked stricken. The young man said, ‘that’s really tragic, but, you know, what happened yesterday must have pushed her over the edge.’

Since then, in the short span of ten months, we have, indeed, returned to a kind of normalcy, forsaking opportunities to examine our virtual reality more closely, knowing, I suspect, what’s on the other side (Zizek’s ‘desert of the real’). But on the 17th of September, when the nation was still between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, Zizek asked,

‘Will Americans decide to fortify further their ‘sphere,’ or to risk stepping out of it? Either America will persist in, strengthen even, the attitude of ‘Why should this happen to us? Things like this don't happen HERE!’, leading to more aggressivity towards the threatening Outside, in short: to a paranoiac acting out. Or America will finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen separating it from the Outside World, accepting its arrival into the Real world, making the long-overdue move from ‘A thing like this should not happen HERE!’ to ‘A thing like this should not happen ANYWHERE!’. America's ‘holiday from history’ was a fake: America's peace was bought by the catastrophes going on elsewhere. Therein resides the true lesson of the bombings: the only way to ensure that it will not happen HERE again is to prevent it going on ANYWHERE ELSE.’

With amazing alacrity America patched the puncture, sealing itself inside its bubble again. Well, it makes sense. Zizek had fallen prey to the same euphoria the dispossessed and liberal-minded intellectuals who pretend to represent them had. For a moment the whole thing teetered on the brink on collapse, it’s true. The world watched breathless as America lost, and then somehow magically regained its innocence.

Zizek’s conclusion, that we must work to prevent a thing like this happening ANYWHERE ELSE ever again, while reasonable enough for all sorts of reasons, isn’t really very realistic, is it?

I mean, do you remember the Judas figure in The Matrix? There was a fellow by the name of Cipher, I believe it was, who preferred, quite naturally, the virtual reality of the Matrix to the Desert of The Real. Americans long ago acknowledged how crappy life in the Third World is. Occasionally they boycott a company like Nike to show their solidarity with those their insatiable appetite for sneakers oppresses. But the choice was never between sneakers or going barefoot, it was between Nike and Adidas.

But should Americans feel responsible for accidents of birth? Is it your average American’s fault that people are born in nations South of the Border where the economy is not sufficiently developed to offer all the modcons we enjoy? SUVs and big-screen TVs, and beef three times a day, and whatnot. And should we not enjoy them just because others can’t? I mean, isn’t that partly why we enjoy them in the first place?

I have a relatively wealthy British lady friend. Occasionally she invites me and our positively lovely Ukrainian friend to dinner at one of the classier hotels on the Danube Promenade in Pest. Poor, dear O., my Ukrainian friend works on the docks in Odessa on the Black Sea for a pittance, supporting family and friends, who are unable to find work. I asked O. about visiting, something I have been meaning to do for years. O. related, matter-of-factly how the family still lacked a water-heater, which would cost well over a month’s wages. Suddenly Madame von K, who was treating us to dinner, interrupted to ask how much a week’s holiday in Turkey would set her back. I am convinced she did not mean to be insensitive to O.’s plight, she simply wished to assert that her own concerns were equally valid, and that she should not hesitate to voice them simply because O.’s situation was different. Was it her fault, after all, that the economy of the Ukraine was in shambles?

I was once in Morocco with Madame for four torturous days. We frequented a restaurant expressly for foreigners and expats, and were befriended by a most charming waiter named Mustafa. In the same matter-of-fact way, when prompted to discuss his situation, he told us he had to work a lot just to make ends meet. He spoke English, French and Arabic with equal ease, and was terrifically handsome. (Did I mention that he was terrifically handsome?) And he was working as a waiter, and would likely be working as a waiter till his dying day. Madame sat up stiff in her chair, and told him, well, Dante and I both work a lot, too. All in the worst possible taste, if you ask me.

There is this prevailing assumption in the first world, patently absurd, that, given the inherent justice of the markets, someday everyone will share in the wealth we now enjoy, if only they take steps to develop their economies as we have developed ours. Ignoring the fact that our prosperity is predicated on their poverty. Not only dependent on it, but affirmed by it.

If America is indeed an Empire, it’s about time it started behaving like one, don’t you think? All this whinging and whining, ‘why us?’. Apparently wanting to be victors and victims at the same time, to play for the winning and losing team both. Isn't that the New American Philosophy? Have Your Cake And Eat It, Too?

Nor do I wish to be inflammatory. I apologize if I have scandalized any visitors to my site. My aim is only to point out the American predicament as I see it. I have lived abroad almost a decade now, and have been called to defend America—to justify America—on countless occasions, and have done so to the best of my ability. It’s not always an easy task, and it’s not getting any easier. I have abandoned highflown political and moral rhetoric. All I can say is, take a drive through the New Hampshire hills in autumn. Take a walk on the streets of Manhattan (but watch your wallet). Diners. Bungalows. Mark Twain. Mencken. These are matters of the heart. They are sentimental attachments.

The fact is: the uncomfortable psychic gap between The Matrix and The Desert of the Real is only set to get bigger. All the things we enjoy and esteem will only become more trivial, to the point of obscenit, if we dare to see ourselves as the Outside World sees us. When I read Roger Rosenblatt’s July 4th op-ed piece in the New York Times, encouraging American’s to lighten up: ‘At least half the reason one loves this country is that it's a playful, quite nutty place, teeming with ridiculous notions [like the Spam Museum], and silly pronouncements,’ one of which, he claims, was George Bush the elder’s praise of Vaclav Havel ‘dying, or living — whatever — for freedom,’ all I could think of was that line from Rilke, about the laughter turning rancid.

The only question on Independence Day is ‘Would you die for it?’ If you'd die for it, you'll live for it. To live for it means to shake away the sleep, and try to get to the Truth. To borrow another line from Rilke: you've got to change your life.

The events of 9/11 presented a clear choice, just like Zizek says. Persist, fortify, lash out, or step through the screen separating America from the Outside World. It's a moral choice. It's a hard, ugly choice. And there's still time to make it.

7/03/2002

In the American Grain

It’s Independence Day tomorrow, of course, and everybody’s trying to think up reasons to like America. I mean, Americans are.

Roger Rosenblatt, for instance, acknowledges that these are ‘stressful times’ which makes it hard to be patriotic without being solemn. ‘But,’ he says, ‘at least half the reason one loves this country is that it's a playful, quite nutty place, teeming with ridiculous notions and silly pronouncements.’ He suggests lightening it up a bit. Think of all the wonderfully wacky things Americans do! Where else could you find The Spam Museum, for example? That’s a pretty nutty thing, eh? A museum for Spam! Har har har! Only in America! I feel the love of my country burgeoning in my breast already!

And what about all those silly names we give our towns and cities? Like Hot Coffee, Mississippi, or Oatmeal, Texas! Tee hee hee! Or how about, nudge-nudge-wink-wink, French Lick, Indiana! ‘H. L. Mencken said that in naming places to live, our original pioneers ‘preferred humor to poetry,’ and so do we, generally. Something about the grandeur of the country seems to beg for an accompanying giggle, perhaps out of embarrassment for our former connections with Emerson's ‘courtly muses of Europe.’’

Rosenblatt goes on to praise our leaders for reflecting this great sense of humor. ‘National leaders are never so endearing as when they expose the comedy beneath their official sobriety.’ Among America’s funniest political punchlines, according to Rosenblatt: George Bush the elder's praise of Vaclav Havel ‘dying, or living — whatever — for freedom.’

He says, even the founding fathers probably had a pretty good sense of humor. ‘Can't you picture Jefferson and the boys on July 2, 1776, looking up from the document they had just created, realizing that they were about to toss a pie in the face of the most powerful empire on earth, staring at one another, smiling and wide-eyed, and asking: ‘Are we nuts?’’ Yes, Roger, everyone is as fat, disgusting, and complacent as you are, as we, the people, have become. It’s all just a big, nutty joke! I wonder how much they pay him to write this rubbish.

It’s actually a reaction to the trivialization of every aspect of existence that comes with the kind of prosperity America enjoys. And when I say kind, I mean kind, because there are different kinds. The kind that America enjoys, which is purchased cheap from others, calls for as little moral scrutiny amongst those who enjoy it as possible.

No, the Founding Fathers weren’t tittering and tee-heeing when they signed the Declaration of Independence. That’s actually a failure of imagination. Although he starts his op-ed piece saying it’s hard not to be solemn, given the ‘stress’ Americans are under, the opposite is actually closer to the truth. American solemnity is as superficial as the sentimentality that passes for patriotism. Americans are soft, and so are their sentiments.

Lately, with Bush in the White House and the events of 9/11, there’s been a lot of praise for the strike-first-ask-questions-later philosophy. Bush’s unilateralism fits in nicely with the American mood of the moment. His impatience with long, compound-complex sentences has been praised not as a defect, but as a sign of sincerity. America is not about compound-complex sentences, after all. That’s some kind of pretension left over from those old ‘courtly muses of Europe,’ we’re rightly embarrassed about aping. Americans tell it like it is. This is, of course, a crude kind of sentimental picture of an America that might once have been, in a time when the Americans laying claim to this essentially rural/blue collar ethic actually existed, but nowadays that naïve rural culture is gone, along with the urban immigrant culture that was its counterpart. So I don’t buy a word of it.

And Mencken would’ve spat in Rosenblatt’s face, by the way.

Aside from Rosenblatt’s blather, you’ve got Maureen Dowd banging on about what she calls ‘catch-2002.’ I like the phrase, and Maureen Dowd’s clever enough, but after going through all kinds of catch-2002s, she ends with what I guess we’re supposed to see as the ultimate:

'The Washington Post had a front-page article last week reporting that a significantly higher percentage of American college graduates are women and quoting experts saying that would make it harder for women to find suitably smart mates.
And a new study from Rutgers about why more men are putting off marriage suggests that moms who warned daughters that guys would think, "Why buy the cow if you can get the milk free?" may have been right: women have sex to get men to marry them, but men think they don't need to marry because they're already having sex.

'Which brings us back to the dread findings of Sylvia Ann Hewlett: Women having trouble finding husbands get better educations and bigger jobs to support themselves, which ends up scaring away possible husbands. Catch-2002.'

Women are so smart and so diligent. Brutish, boorish men have kept them down all these millennia through sheer force, but now that they are free to really excel the truth is out. Men simply aren’t up to muster.

Poor sods. Women, I mean. They will always end up with the short end of the stick. I’m starting to see that now, very clearly. Their only satisfaction is in making life a misery for us, too. America and British society is so saturated with politically correct sexist hogwash, if at once you see it, you’ll see it everywhere you look.

I was reading another article in the science section, about why childhood lasts so long in humans. It was a pithy piece, and full of little off-hand observations. The author, a certain Natalie Angier, was talking about the hunter-gatherer societies anthropologists were studying trying to puzzle it all out, and when it came to hunting, she never bothered with adjectives, but gathering was ‘difficult,’ requiring strength and dexterity, and the foods foraged for were described as ‘nutritious’ and ‘all-important.’

Ms. Angier and I had a good giggle when she revealed that while kids fell far behind the women in foraging, ‘the proudest spearmen on the island are just barely better than . . . the children.’ And the ellipsis is in the original, so that it’s clear it’s supposed to be a punch line.

She also spends a good deal of time recounting how the anthropologists encouraged the men to compete with the women and children by offering prizes for different tasks. The implication was clearly that men are even more like children than...children. In the end, though, all it goes to show is that women were made for work , and men for play. I mean, men are physiologically built and psychologically wired for play. More and more I see that women are pissed off about it, but what’s to be done?

It’s not persecution mania, either. And it’s no more misogynistic than is merited by female misandry. There’s a real shift in perceptions of gender and sexuality going on, and the main trouble with the whole picture is it looks a lot like a dead-end. Feminism comes to a screeching halt about 13cm up the cunt. Why get bent out of shape about it? I mean as a gay guy who doesn’t have to have anything to do with that stretch of lost highway anyway? Well, it’s possible that’s precisely why. Heterosexuals have a reason to look the other way, to turn the other cheek, but the feminine holds no mystique for me.