I’ve been in a mood of retreat recently, less spiritual retreat and more battle retreat. I’m fed up with the whole shebang. Even NPR is pissing me off (NPR: Liberal Bias? – “This is the type of issue I’m tired of posting about. But I’m posting it because the lying pundits and deceiving political strategists never tire… and, more annoying to my everyday interactions, because the un-/mis-/disinformed followers never tire.”).
It’s not just about disagreeing. It’s more fundamental. I want truth, authenticity. I want to know what is real, feel it in my gut. All the spin and rhetoric is getting to me. I’ve hit breaking points before, but this one is different. I’ve been studying history and politics in great detail for a number of years now. I’m not entirely giving up on that, but I can feel a part of me beginning to back off from it all.
Various things clarified this for me recently. What really pushed me over the edge was actually reading something inspiring, something that felt authentically real. The book in question is Homegrown Democrat by Garrison Keillor, the inspiration then led to sadness when I watched and listened to some mainstream media and politics. A while back, I was similarly inspired and saddened by reading Harvey J. Kaye’s Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Thomas Paine was a classical liberal I could respect).
Inspiration and depression have always gone hand in hand for me. I’ve always thought that if modern society doesn’t make you feel suicidally depressed, then there is something seriously wrong with you. I say that only half humorously.
“From a certain point onward, there is a no turning back. That is the point that must be reached.”
~ Franz Kafka
– – –
Here is a long comment from a recent post where I expressed my feelings:
What Paine and many others realized is that civilization is built on and dependent on violence. All the good of our modern lives is inseparable form horrible violence. It’s a conundrum, but one that must be faced. The worst violence doesn’t come from a gun or not in a direct sense. There is no choice between violence or no violence in this world. A completely peaceful world is a nice utopia, but for right now we have to deal with the reality in front of us.
As for guns democratically controlled, this happened because they were controlled undemocratically in the past. The world is violent. That is just the way reality is, like it or not (which isn’t to say we shouldn’t aspire toward peace). It’s just that a gun controlled democratically is better than a gun controlled by a tyrant or a gang or a corporation. I’m not a fan of choosing between the lesser of two evils, but in this case there is no other choice… except by either fundamentally altering human nature or fundamentally altering all of human civilization (both being very long term projects that certainly won’t see fruition in our lifetimes, if ever).
Freedom from violence is an abstract ideal. The land you live on is made of the corpses of Native Americans who unwillingly sacrificed their freedom for yours. The products you buy are made through an oppressively violent global economy. If you own property, you are participating in the continuation of a history of colonial genocide and oppression. The land you own is theft from the indigenous and theft from the commons. The landless peasants, many who are homeless, still suffer because of an ownership class that defends it’s stolen land by use of violence, both public and private. How many more people have to die and how much longer does oppression have to last for the sake of these abstract ideals?
“I might disagree, for example if you were asserting that the label “socialism” can be interpreted to mean MERELY valuing the collective good, and fairness.”
I’m not asserting anything in describing what socialism is. I didn’t invent socialism. What I was doing is pointing out the fact that many people are misinformed about socialism. Many of the criticisms of socialism are against views that many socialists don’t advocate. ‘Socialism’ is a favorite straw man of American society, In response to this sad state of affairs, I was offering accurate definitions of socialism.
It’s just a fact that socialists care more about the common good than any other group. It’s the very heart of socialism: social good, social concerns, social-ism. Socialists merely point out that in an interconnected world as we live in it’s literally impossible to separate individual good from collective good, private good from public good. The distinctions between these things only exist in the human mind and in human language, but they don’t exist in the actual lived reality of the world we all share. I know many Americans don’t want to accept these facts. Still, the facts remain.
The distinction I put forth is that anyone who cares will always put people before ideology, including the ideology of ‘freedom’. The question is: Freedom from what and towards what? Whose freedom at whose cost? Too many people want to defend their own freedom while trampling on the freedom of others and then rationalizing that it isn’t their fault that their freedom is built on violence and oppression. People suffer, there are winners and losers, some are just inferior and deserve the horrible fate an oppressive society forced on them. In my heart of hearts, I hope such people one day experience the suffering of those they look down upon or simply ignore. The distinction I put forth is between those who know suffering in the marrow of their bones and those who live comfortable, contented lives.
I’m tired of ideology. I really don’t know how to communicate what I feel other than to say I feel frustrated. The freedom to be poor and oppressed isn’t a freedom I want. The freedom to live in a dog eat dog world is a freedom that makes me want to commit suicide, not joking. If that is freedom, then I’m with Derrick Jensen and I want to see civilization be demolished.
I’m tired of people who, while seemingly meaning well, promote an ugly view of society and of human nature. I’m tired of people who act patriotic about ‘America’ when it’s obvious they have little faith in what America stands for. To them, America just means an attitude of ‘me and my own’ (“Real Americans”).
And I’m tired of people who righteously defend freedom while not acknowledging that most people still live without basic rights and opportunities, that the freedom they defend is in reality just the denial of the freedom of others. Freedom can’t be taken away when it has yet to exist in our society (yes there is some freedom for some people, but even that limited freedom is mostly held by a minority… when freedom means wealth and power, then freedom no longer has any valid meaning).
I’m just plain tired. The worldview that America has come to stand for is something I feel compelled to stand against. Freedom has become a choice between Coke or Pepsi, between Republican or Democrat, between America or the Commies. It’s a simpleminded, black/white conception of freedom. It’s an empty, superficial freedom… just propaganda for mass control.
What inspires me is very simple: people caring about people. Not people caring about people because they think it will boost their own self-interest. Just people caring about people because it’s the right thing to do. We can worry about abstract ideals later… after the starving are fed, the freezing are housed, the sick and dying are cared for. Jesus didn’t ask for money before healing someone, didn’t wonder if such actions conformed to some abstract ideal of liberty. Jesus just helped people.
Basically, what I’m proposing is Midwestern liberalism which partly originates from the early settlers who brought along with them a pragmatic socialism (from Northern Europe). Midwestern liberalism/socialism is just basic Heartland values. The Milwaukee socialists were known as the Sewer Socialists because they were concerned about very practical issues of community life such as making sure there was clean air and water so that people didn’t get sick (which was a major problem with the rise of industrialization). The Sewer Socialists were proud of having a sewer system that actually worked (quite an achievement at the time), to have public services that actually served the public. They didn’t give a damn about ideology. They just wanted people in their community to be healthy and cared for.
Such simple pride in having a healthy community seems almost odd today, but such Midwestern liberalism/socialism still exists… at least in some parts of the Midwest. I was just reminded of this tonight while reading Garrison Keillor’s Homegrown Democrat:
“The state was settled by no-nonsense socialists from Germany and Sweden and Norway who unpacked their trunks and planted corn and set about organizing schools; churches; libraries; lodges; societies and benevolent associations; brotherhoods and sisterhoods, and raised their children to Mind Your Manners, Be Useful, Pay Attention, Make Something of Yourself, Turn Down the Thermostat (If You’re Cold, Go Put on a Sweater), Share and Share Alike, Be Satisfied with What You Have—a green Jell-O salad with mandarin oranges, miniature marshmallows, walnuts, and Miracle Whip is by God good enough for anybody. I grew up in the pure democracy of a public grade school where everybody brought a valentine for everybody on Valentine’s Day so we should feel equally loved though of course some valentines are more equal than others, some have lace and little flaps under which special endearments are written, and others are generic, printed six to a page with bumpy edges where they were torn on the dotted line. But you should be happy with what you get and Don’t Think You’re Special Because You’re Not. (Those people on daytime TV talking about how their parents never gave them the positive feedback they needed and that’s why they shot them—those are not Minnesotans. Nor are the people who go to court to win their children the right to not say the Pledge of Allegiance or not be in the room when other children are saying it.) We take pains to not be Special. If there is one meatball left on the platter, you do not take it, you take half of it, and someone else takes half of that and so it is endlessly divided down to the last crumb. Not a state of showboats or motor-mouths.
“[ . . . ] there is a high value placed on public services. If you call 911 in St. Paul, the cops or the EMTs will arrive within four minutes. In the Republican suburbs, where No New Taxes is the beginning and end of politics and emergency services depend on volunteers, the response time can be anywhere between ten or fifteen and thirty minutes.”
Keillor is the first person I’ve come across in a long while who captures that down-to-earth sense of the common good. It’s very Midwestern thing and so I’m not sure people from other parts of the country can fully understand it. In the Midwest, community has more centrality than individuality. There are a couple of reasons for this.
First, it’s farming country. When it was first settled, farmers were fairly isolated and were dependent on their neighbors. They shared their resources to have schools, roads, bridges, hospitals, etc. They truly had a government for and by the people.
Second, it’s partly the religion of the first settlers. They were largely Catholics and Quakers who are very community-oriented. Catholics and Quakers built public schools, orphanages and hospitals where ever they settled. They put collective action and collective benefit above individual freedom and self-interest. It’s why the Catholic Church has often had an uneasy relationship to unbridled capitalism and it’s why the areas of the US with the highest rates of Catholic membership are also the same areas with the highest rates of union membership.
– – –
In case you didn’t notice from that comment, let me state it obviously: I’M TIRED! Lordy Lordy!
But, more importantly, I was impressed by Garrison Keillor. He is what is known as ‘good people’. I just finished reading his book. It made me so happy… well, while reading it. Paine made me proud to be an American. And Keillor makes me proud to be a Midwestern liberal. Keillor is so down-to-earth and easygoing. Reading Keillor’s words, I felt a genuine attitude of emotional honesty, an open-hearted sense of humanity. Whatever it is, it’s a rare thing. Some people thought Bush jr was the type of guy you could have a beer with by which I assume they were referring to his past as an alcoholic frat boy. Well, Keillor is the kind of guy you imagine having breakfast with in a cheap diner while discussing important issues such as weather, town gossip and last Sunday’s sermon.
However, it’s more than just that friendly, down-to-earth midwestern sensibility that values people over ideology and community over politics, that emphasizes the enjoyment of the simple things in life, that looks for the good in others while emphasizing that one is no better than anyone else. All of that is there in Keillor, but he also comes off as having great self-awareness and social insight. You can tell he has thought deeply and carefully. He isn’t expressing his opinions for the sake of proving that he is right and that those who disagree with him are wrong.
In thinking about Keillor, I was thinking of others of a similar authentic, easygoing bent. Some obvious examples are Jim Wallis, Noam Chomsky and Thom Hartmann. I might also add people like Henry David Thoreau, Philip K. Dick and Terrence McKenna. The common theme among all of these is a basic quality of humanness rather than ideology or ulterior motive. All of these people seem to genuinely like people, something I admire for the reason I too often fail at it. I realize I would be a better person if I was able to feel and express such empathy and compassion.
– – –
There is one part of Keillor’s attitude that is most relevant to my own recent focus. I described it somewhat in the above blog comment when I mentioned community as a traditional Midwestern value.
Community is such a simple thing, but these days it can seem like a strange alien artifact. Some American citizens are so messed up in the head that they think hating the American government is patriotic. Instead of being about people and community, patriotism has been made into self-righteous folk religiosity. Instead of being about democracy and public service, patriotism has become about partisan self-interest and xenophobic fear-mongering.
All of this got me thinking about individualism, specifically the American variety of hyper-individualism that became increasingly popular in recent decades. Although clearly popular among conservatives, it isn’t limited to conservatives. It’s not unusual for me to come across liberals who promote their own kind of hyper-individualism. There is a type of person who is so concerned about individual liberty and rights that everything else, at best, becomes of secondary value or, at worst, becomes entirely occluded from their vision of reality.
Basically, such a person can’t see the forest for the trees. You can point at the trees and they will see the trees and they might go on about the value of each and every tree. They might be sad as tree after tree is cut down or infested by insects or strangled by kudzu or becomes sickly from pollution, but they won’t put it all together, won’t see an entire ecosystem dying, won’t understand that when this particular ecosystem dies the entire life-supporting biosphere is further weakened. A rainforest, for example, can take hundreds of thousands or even millions of years to form. But once destroyed they can’t be replanted. They’re just gone, a major source of the very oxygen we breathe gone forever (or at least gone forever as far as the human species is concerned).
– – –
I had an insight about where hyper-individualism came from in American history. I see two major factors.
Right from the beginning America has been a favorite destination of people escaping oppression, violence and various other kinds of suffering and horror. Many first generation immigrants were psychologically traumatized which led to a rootlessness. These people had a mentality of escape and Americans are always getting away and moving on, always planning escape routes. The Native Americans also were traumatized, but we hid their trauma by sending them off to places we didn’t have to see them.
The history of America has been trauma, victim becoming victimizer creating new victims. It’s our founding mythology, told and retold: slavery, religious persecution, indigenous genocide, revolution, etc. After independence was declared, there soon followed the Civil War which was in many ways just re-opening old wounds of revolutionary era conflicts. The Civil War ripped America apart and we’ve never really healed from it. We are still a divided people.
This is where the second factor comes in. The symbol of American (hyper-)individualism is the lone cowboy, sometimes fighting the good fight but reluctantly, always escaping a haunted past. Have you ever wondered what the haunted past was that caused movie cowboys to often be silent and at other times violent. In reality, many Wild West gunslingers (such as Jesse James) were Civil War veterans, quite a few Southerners. They saw many friends die in the war. A lot of them lost their homes and their livelihood. For a few, the entire town they left behind was burned to the ground. Some lost family members or even whole families (My dad was telling me about one of our neighbors in South Carolina who told him about how on one side of his family every male had been killed in the Civil War; and he explained to my dad that, after losing a war of that magnitude, such personal losses aren’t forgotten even generations later).
These were severely traumatized veterans and they didn’t go to therapy to heal their trauma. They were real men, and as real men they turned to booze and prostitutes, guns and adventure. Many went West because of their haunted pasts that were driving them to get as far away as possible. As the first immigrants escaped the horrors of other countries, the Civil War veterans were escaping the horrors of America.
Here is a clear description of the horrors, both collective and personal, of the Civil War and its aftermath (from Rebirth of a Nation by Jackson Lears):
“EARLY AS April 1862 Americans had a sense of what happened when massive assaults provoked massive counterassaults. Near Shiloh Church in Tennessee, Generals Beauregard and Grant threw armies at each other for thirty-six hours. As reports of the battle filtered back to the home front, the staggering losses mounted, eventually up to 24,500 killed, wounded, or missing on both sides. The numbers were numbing; in any case there was little popular protest, North or South. A few Democratic newspaper editors in the North, never too keen on the war in the first place, deplored the losses and demanded Grant’s scalp. No one knew that they had seen the future. Shiloh was only the first of many bloodbaths—the first of many indications that the most successful Union commanders would be the ones most willing to sacrifice unprecedented numbers of men. The West Point Code was on the way out.
“Neither side sought to avoid bloodbaths; both seemed addicted to frontal assaults (preferably uphill) on entrenched fortifications. The casualties were fearful, in the mass and in detail. The failed assault on Fort Wagner in July 1863 by the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth, the black regiment under the command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, left an eyewitness aghast: “The ditch was literally choked up with dead bodies and it was possible to walk upon them for fifty yards without touching ground.” Those who survived often faced their own protracted horrors, as Walt Whitman reported from a Washington hospital: a Union soldier shot through the bladder, marinating in his own piss; a Confederate soldier the top of whose head had been blown off and whose brains were suppurating in the sun, surviving for three days while he dug a hole in the ground with his heel. These scenes were repeated by the hundreds of thousands. And there were many witnesses.
“Looking back on the war in Specimen Days, Whitman strained to capture the enormity of the evil unleashed by raw rage. After describing John Mosby’s Confederate guerrillas gunning down the Union wounded they had captured near Upperville, Virginia, Whitman then recalled the Union cavalry’s counterattack, capture, and summary execution of seventeen guerrillas in the Upperville town square, where they left the bodies to rot. “Multiply [this scene] by scores, aye hundreds,” Whitman wrote, “light it with every lurid passion, the wolf’s, the lion’s lapping thirst for blood—the passionate volcanoes of human revenge for comrades, brothers slain—with the light of burning farms, and heaps of smutting, smouldering black embers—and in the human heart everywhere black, worse embers—and you have an inkling of this war.”
“Whitman’s recollection of “the light of burning farms” underlined the other major feature of total war: the treatment of civilians as belligerents. Early in the war, Confederates fantasized about bombarding Northern cities, and Stonewall Jackson was always champing at the bit to bring the war to the Northern people. But despite Jackson’s murderous ferocity, the Confederates did not have the resources to sustain an aggressive war. Apart from the two abortive invasions that ended at Antietam and Gettysburg, the main damage done by the Confederate Army to the Yankee population was the tactically pointless burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in 1864. The chief Southern war on civilians was conducted in Missouri, by guerrillas and other irregulars who resisted the Union army of occupation and terrorized its civilian sympathizers, torching their property and gunning them down at random. William Quantrell and his guerrilla band in Missouri, along with John Mosby and his raiders in Virginia, led what might today be characterized as the terrorist wing of the Confederate insurgency.
“Confederate guerrillas practiced insurgent terrorism, the Union Army gradually embraced a policy that can accurately be characterized as state terrorism. By 1865, fifty thousand Southern civilians had been killed as a direct result of Northern combat operations. The policy was embodied in Lincoln’s General Order #100, authored by Francis Lieber, a German émigré, romantic nationalist, and erstwhile professor at the University of South Carolina. The first part of the order aimed to restrict “savage” behavior, such as the bombardment of civilian areas in cities or the pillage of farms; the second part eviscerated those restrictions by stating that any of them could be ignored in the event of “military necessity.” In a counterinsurgency campaign, the phrase justified shelling cities and torching farms. Like other insurgencies, the secessionist movement depended for its support on the local population. The recognition of that fact was behind Grant’s famous order to Philip Sheridan: “turn the Shenandoah into a barren waste so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their own provender.” Other rationales for treating civilians as belligerents foreshadowed contemporary excuses for “collateral damage.” Sherman bombarded Atlanta neighborhoods, he said, because the Confederates were using civilians as human shields. The mass of the Southern population was neither armed nor dangerous. But they were in the war, whether they wanted to be or not. Total war swept all before it.
“Conventional accounts of Appomattox and its aftermath have everyone rolling up his sleeves and getting ready to pitch into an expansive economy. But given the ravages of total war, North and South, one could just as easily describe a postwar landscape littered with lost souls. Consider, for example, how the war shaped the lives of two James boys: Garth Wilkinson James and Jesse James.
“James was the younger brother of William and Henry James, one of the two less favored sons in a talented, ambitious family. Plump, good-natured, and fervently antislavery, Wilky enlisted in the Forty-fourth Massachusetts regiment in September 1862. Both his older brothers managed to avoid the army, with their father’s approval and connivance. Henry James Sr. showed no such solicitude for his younger boys. But war would be Wilky’s one chance to step out of his brothers’ shadow. Transferred to Shaw’s Fifty-fourth, Wilky became one of the white officers who led the black regiment’s doomed charge on Fort Wagner. He was seriously wounded, hit by a shell in the side and a canister ball in the foot. After months of convalescence he returned to the Fifty-fourth, but he never really recovered from his wounds. He survived for eighteen years after Appomattox, in nearly constant pain from rheumatism in his wounded foot. He bumped from one bad business venture to another, beginning with the failure of his idealistic plan to provide recently freed black families an economic foothold by employing them on his farm in Florida. Having run through many thousands of his father’s dollars, he was finally disinherited and died in poverty in Milwaukee, where he and his family had been scraping by after several failed business ventures. For Wilky the war brought not regeneration but ruin. He was one of many men whose physical and emotional wounds never healed.
“James, in contrast, was not physically wounded but psychologically brutalized by the war. Coming of age amid the white-hot hatreds of wartime Missouri, he grew up in a world where casual murder was a manly sport and a rite of passage, the only conclusive proof that you had become (and remained) a man. He proved himself many times during the war, when he rode with Quantrell’s raiders. After Appomattox new opportunities presented themselves. In Missouri, ten years of blood feuds had bred widespread longings for retribution. Many returning veterans could not give up the habit of violence and helped to swell a postwar crime wave. Gunslinging became a way of life.
“Much of the violence was rooted in Reconstruction politics. Bushwhackers wanted revenge against Radical Republicans and money from the companies the Republicans financed. That was enough, among embittered Confederates, to make the James gang seem more than mere bandits and killers. But that is what they were. For fifteen years, they took money at gunpoint from banks and later from express companies, whose monies were being transported on the expanding network of railroads. They also killed a lot of innocent people. Throughout his short life, Jesse remained irresistibly attracted to arbitrary violence.
“Wilkinson James and Jesse James were both permanently scarred by the war, though in profoundly different ways. Wilky limped through the postwar period, failing at everything he tried, knowing that nothing he did would ever match the heroism of storming Fort Wagner. Jesse was filled with partisan rage and vicious notions of manhood that transformed him into a driven killer. The war ravaged lives in unpredictable ways and left a wounded nation.”
In the years following the Civil War, some gunslingers became idolized as heroic lawmen and others became idolized as anti-heroic lawless gunslingers. Jesse James, mentioned above, is a good example of the latter. And Virgil Earp is a good example of the former:
“Private Virgil Earp was still a teenager when marched off to war in 1862 leaving his wife with a baby girl just two weeks old. He would not see his wife or daughter again for thirty-seven years because in the summer of 1863, Ellen was told that Virgil had been killed in Tennessee. Heartbroken, Ellen took her daughter and headed west with her parents. Unaware of the reports of his death, Virgil served throughout the Civil War seeing action in Tennessee and Kentucky. His regiment was assigned to the Army of the Cumberland commanded by Major General George H. Thomas. By the end of the war, the 83rd Illinois had lost one hundred twenty-one men and officers. Private Earp was not among those who died. He returned home in the summer of 1865, three years after he left, to find his wife and baby gone and no way to contact them.
“Like tens of thousands of Civil War veterans, the Earp brothers headed west for a fresh start and new opportunities. For the next ten years, Virgil Earp moved around the country holding various jobs such as farming, railroad construction, and stagecoach driver. He married, divorced, and married again.”
Whether lawman or lawless, it was a popular romantic myth of violent justice where the individual determined his own sense of justice. There was not much if any government in the Wild West. Both heroic lawmen and anti-heroic lawless gunslingers were uneasy of the encroachment of civilization with a new brand of lawmen who were a privatized law and military force, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. There were more Pinkerton agents than there were US soldiers, and probably quite a few Civil War veterans were hired as Pinkerton agents. The lawless gunslingers were seen as heroes because they were fighting big businesses that used violence and oppression to get their way. This was an era that was fomenting the public unrest eventually leading to the Populist Era.
At the same time, this was the era of the Indian Wars which continued into the early 20th century. The Native Americans were fighting their last battles as the unions were fighting their first battles. Between Indians and Pinkertons, the Wild West cowboy was in the middle of enemies. It was a time of violence that created a culture of violence.
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Furthermore, this violence became the mythology which was permanently emblazoned on the collective psyche through early publications of the exploits of gunfighters and later on with movies.
After those earliest cowboy movies, the lone cowboy myth was being modernized during the Reagan Era when hyper-individualism took on new meaning. Reagan was the actor pretending to be a cowboy who pretended to be a corporate spokesperson and then a president. The romanticized myth of the lone cowboy helped get Reagan elected. It was at that time when macho hyper-individualism fully became the new American mythos: the lone cowboy, the lone rogue cop, the lone businessman. And I suppose it was no accident that the rise of hyper-individualism came at the high point of communist paranoia, communism after all being the antithesis of hyper-individualism.
It was the death knell of liberalism. Rambo was one of the first modernized versions of the lone cowboy. There is the book The Spitting Image by Jerry Lembcke which analyzes how a legend formed around the claim that many Vietnam vets were spit upon by protesters (Damn hippies!) when they came home. In that book, he attributes the origins of this legend to movies such as Rambo: First Blood where there is a scene of Rambo raging about the injustices he met upon his return:
Colonel Trautman: It’s over Johnny. It’s over!
Rambo: Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off! It wasn’t my war! You asked me I didn’t ask you! And I did what I had to do to win, for somebody who wouldn’t let us win! Then I come back to the world, and I see all those maggots at the airport, protestin’ me, spittin’, callin’ me a baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me?! Huh?! Who are they?! Unless they been me and been there and know what the hell they yellin’ about!
Of course, this ignores that the anti-war protesters directed their anger and criticism at the political leaders and not the soldiers. It also ignores the fact that a fair number of Vietnam vets became anti-war protesters. But facts never get in the way of a good story.
Obviously, the Vietnam War was traumatizing to the American psyche similar to the Civil War. Both wars created a generation of physically and psychologically battered veterans many of whom felt victimized and resentful. And out of that trauma was born a sense of isolation and a sense of the individual being against the world. Rambo describes this in his words directly following the above speech about “all those maggots”:
Colonel Trautman: It was a bad time for everyone Rambo. It’s all in the past now.
Rambo: For you! For me civilian life is nothin’! In the field without a code of honor. You watch my back I watch yours. Back here there’s nothin’! Col. Trautman: You’re the last of an elite group. Don’t end it like this. Rambo: Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment. Back here I can’t even hold a job PARKING CARS!!!! UUHHHH!!!!! (Throws M-60 at wall and then slight emotional pause. He drops to the ground in a crouched position out of breath and very upset) Wha…I can’t…oh, I jus–omigod. Where is everybody? Oh God…I…I had a friend, who was Danforth. Wha–I had all these guys man. Back there I had all these fucking guys. Who were my friends. Cause back here there’s nothin’. Remember Danforth? He wore this black head band and I took one of those magic markers and I said to Feron, ‘Hey mail us to Las Vegas cause we were always talkin’ about Vegas, and this fucking car. This uh red ’58 Chevy convertible, he was talkin’ about this car, he said we were gonna cruise till the tires fall off. (upset pause) We were in this bar in Saigon. And this kid comes up, this kid carryin’ a shoe shine box, and eh he says uh ‘shine please, shine.’ I said no, eh an’ uh, he kept askin’ yeah and Joey said ‘yeah,’ and I went to get a couple beers and the ki–the box was wired, and he opened up the box, fuckin’ blew his body all over the place. And he’s layin’ there and he’s fuckin’ screamin’, there’s pieces of him all over me, jus like–! (frustrated he grabs at his bullet chain strapped around his chest and yanks it off) like this. And I’m tryin’ to pull em off you know? And ehe.. MY FRIEND IT’S ALL OVER ME! IT’S GOT BLOOD AND EVERYTHING! And I’m tryin’ to hold him together I put him together his fucking insides keep coming out, AND NOBODY WOULD HELP!! Nobody help me. He sayin’ plea I wanna go home I wanna go home. He keeps callin’ my name, I wanna go home Johnny, I wanna drive my Chevy. I said well (upset and breaking down) WHY I can’t find your fucking legs. I can’t find you legs. (softly now) I can’t get it out of my head. I fuc..I dream of seven years. Everyday I have this. And sometimes I wake up and I dunno where I am. I don’t talk to anybody. Sometimes a day–a week. (Almost inaudible) I can’t put it out of my mind…fucking…I can’t…….(totally sobbing now)
For the Rambo at the heart of our culture, the past is never past. The violence is continually relived.
Rambo, of course, was overly simplistic melodramatic violence porn. Maybe for that reason it had such an impact on the American psyche. Rambo expressed something that Americans felt, something that Americans wanted to believe. It gave all of the conflicts and doubts an emodied form. It put it all into the context of a story. And stories have a way of informing our perceived reality, our shared sense of identity.
– – –
I touched upon these issues in my book review of David Sirota’s Back to the Future. Here is the relevant section:
First, Sirota argues that the 80s was when violence became normalized. Violence became a central part of our collective psyche: movies, video games, etc. Part of this had to do with the Vietnam War, the first major military loss that shook America’s collective confidence and righteous nationalism. Americans had internalized the violence from the Vietnam War footage and were now trying to come to terms with the sense of national failure that came after the withdrawl from Vietnam. It was maybe something like a collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sirota does mention the Vietnam War. He talks about the explanations given such as what he calls the “hands tied behind their backs” myth. I guess the idea was that if the soldiers weren’t held back, they could’ve demonstrated some real violence that would’ve forced the enemy into submission.
Second, the obsession with violence was inseparable from the obsession with hyper-individualism. This partly was represented by fear and hatred of government, the belief that the government can’t do anything right, that the government is the enemy of the people, of local governance, the enemy of communities, of religions, of capitalism, the enemy of all that is good. In general, all collective action and activism was looked upon with suspicion. Nothing good could come from people working together cooperatively toward the common good. Only individuals (or else individuals working together for the purpose of profit, i.e., private contractors: The A-Team, Ghostbusters, etc) could solve problems. People couldn’t rely on government, the FBI, or the police to solve their problems… and, so, people instead had to hope for a hero figure to come to town. And it was considered admirable when things got done, even if it meant breaking laws and committing violence.
In that same post, I gave an example that resonates with my having been a child in the 80s, a child who watched all of those 80s shows and absorbed their lessons. The 80s didn’t make me into a conservative, but the scars of cynical hyper-individualism are upon me.
Reagan considered Family Ties one of his favorite shows and offered to be in an episode. Sirota considers that show to have been central. Many young conservatives took inspiration from the Alex P. Keaton’s rebellion against his liberal former hippie parents. Alex stated a classic line when he complained about his parents being arrested for protesting nuclear weapons:
“You know what’s wrong with parents today? They still think they can change the world.”
Many Republican and Tea Party conservatives still feel that way today. It’s something like a Calvinist sense of fatalism combined with the self-assurance of a car salesman. Nothing good can be accomplished collectively and so you might as well narrowly focus on your own self-interest. Rambo’s despicable spitting protesters became Alex’s naive yuppie parents.
As I recall, in that episode Alex’s parents were protesting nucler weapons in an attempt to revive the memories of their past activism. Even if well intentioned, these old former hippies are almost pitiful. Alex maybe correctly perceives them as having sold out for careers and a middle class lifestyle. And so maybe he reasons that it would save time by going straight to the selling out.
What is the point of trying to make the world a better place? What did the hippies accomplish? The answer from conservatives is that at best hippies accomplished nothing and at worst they helped destroy everything that was good about America. Specifically, the 60s hippies are the archetypal enemy of the idyllic 50s. It was all going so well until the hippies came along. Never mind the fact that the 50s was the era when liberalism reigned unchallenged. Never mind the fact that what ended the idyllic liberal 50s was the rising neo-conservatism of the 60s. Never mind inconvenient facts.
To me, facts matter. But in the culture wars, story matters even more. It saddens me that there is such a dark and ugly story at the heart of American culture. It’s a festering wound that needs to be opened in order to let out the puss and be cleansed. There is a conflict of narratives, a conflict that I feel like a knot in my chest. It’s scary to believe in something as great as the collective good. It’s so much easier to be cynical or merely focused one’s own individual life, one’s own private concerns. Why stick one’s head out onto what might turn out to be a chopping block? The veterans who fought the wars know that there is rarely much reward offered for their sacrifices. Most homeless people are veterans, forgotten and uncared for. The conservative politicians campaign on sending young men to war and upon their return they seek to cut benefits for veterans.
It’s hard to blame anyone in feeling cynical after such treatment. And it’s not just veterans. Recent decades have been an endless parade of lies and deceit, an endless betrayal by politicians who serve their corporate masters and their ideological bases. As I write, Washington elites are discussing how far they can get away with balancing the budget on the backs of the average Americans. Tax cuts for the rich and bailouts to the banks received less discussion than this.
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Nonetheless, I refuse to believe that it has to be this way.
I know in my heart of hearts that humanity has such great potential. I want to believe in what America stands for. I want to believe in it in the way Thomas Paine believed in it. Yes, to believe so passionately is foolhardy. Even so, if there were no fools, there would never have been an American Revolution in the first place. If the founding generation didn’t foolishly believe in the common good they shared with their countrymen, they wouldn’t have fought for and won their independence. And none of us would be here to argue about the potential of the American Dream.
But I realize that my cynicism too often wins out. My cynicism is constantly confirmed and what little hope I have is constantly dashed. Still, I want to believe. I don’t want to live in a world where I have to fear of losing my job and becoming homeless, of going bankrupt because of health problems, of one day becoming yet another forgotten and lonely elderly person who barely gets by eating God knows what. I’m tired of it all. It’s so depressing because there is no practical reason it has to be this way.
It reminds me of how there is enough food in the world to feed every single person and yet hunger, starvation and malnutrition are widespread. If we spent even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percentage of our military budget on medical research, we probably could have found cures or improvements for all of the major illnesses. If instead of spending money on fighting over oil we spent that money investing in R&D, we would already have viable, cost effective alternative energies. Rather than helping the poor, we build prisons to house the poor. Rather than funding public education, we fund the military-industrial complex.
In heartfelt despair and bewilderment, Derrick Jensen writes (The Culture of Make Believe, pp. 140-1),
“As this dawning dissonance began to tear at my insides, again and again I considered that the confusion must come from within, that I must be missing some simple point: No one could be so stupid as to kill their own planet, all the while chatting breezily about golf, “reality-based TV” (whatever that means), bulging stock portfolios, and How ’bout them Cubbies? What seemed profoundly important to me seemed of no importance whatsoever to most people, and what seemed important to so many people seemed trivial to me. I couldn’t wrap my my mind aroundit. Lawrence Summers promotes the poisoning of poor people, and is elevated to secretary of the treasury. People profess concern over child prostitution as they continue to promulgate the economic and familial conditions that lead to it. The United states bombs Vietnam to save the Vietnamese people, it arms death squads through Latin America to save the people there, it bombs Iraq to save the people there. I kept thinking: Is there something I’m missing?”
Endless violence. Endless stupidity.
I sympathize with those who seek to escape into stories detached from reality. But I also understand that stories have the capacity touch upon deeper truths.
“There is a language older by far and deeper than words. It is the language of the earth, and it is the language of our bodies. It is the language of dreams, and of action. It is the language of meaning, and of metaphor. This language is not safe, as Jim Nollman said of metaphor, and to believe in its safety is to diminish the importance of the embodied. Metaphors are dangerous because id true they open us to our bodies, and thus to action, and because they slip – sometimes wordlessly, sometimes articulated – between the seen and unseen. This language of symbol is the umbilical cord that binds us to the beginning, to whatever is the source of who we are, where we come from, and where we return. To follow this language of metaphor is to trace words back to our bodies, back to the earth.”
~ A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen, p. 311
In the end, maybe I’m just hoping to find a story I can believe in.
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