by Mina Hamilton
May 6, 2003
It was uncanny. I looked at the picture of this man I despise. There George W. was looking a bit windblown and boyish. With his arm around an African-American pilot, he was - miracle of miracles -- without his smirk. Without the condescending, tight-lipped, look, he almost looked nice, even handsome. Perhaps, after all, he was a man of integrity. Maybe, he wasn't the liar I had thought he was.
I like to think that it was terror, Bush's terror that his Navy S-3B fighter jet might overshoot the flight deck of the Abraham Lincoln and land in the brink. The terror loosened his bowels just enough to blow away the patronizing grin.
In the two or three seconds during which I imagined this guy as nice, I knew that our proverbial goose, if not cooked, is certainly close to the oven. If an inveterate skeptic and diehard lefty like me could, even for a second, think good things about Bush, we're in deep doodoo.
Mind you I just saw the picture in the New York Times. If I had heard Dubya's voice, none of these nice-guy thoughts would have surfaced. I'd have been back in disgust and despair. Dubya's voice reminds me of the sinister Bible salesman in one of Flannery O'Connor's short stories. Deep in the rural south, down a deserted, dirt lane, the salesman neatly seduces the crippled lady of the house. He insists, much against her will, on doing the deed in the barn hayloft, which is only accessible up a steep ladder. Afterwards, he deposits a Bible alongside her in the hay, climbs down the ladder -- and makes off with her prosthesis.
No, if I had heard the voice, I would not have been taken in for a microsecond.
The embarrassment of believing a lie reminds me of other times when I have been tempted by deadly bait. Times when I was lured by a comforting and seductive, but poisonous delusion. Times when I, temporarily, lost my mind.
First instance: I was conned by my Dad. We were sitting on the front lawn of a house that was my childhood home. The house was up on a bluff overlooking rolling meadows, wide cornfields. Far down the valley was the blue hazy ridge of the Kittatiny Mountains. In the distance, glinted the Delaware River. All of this splendid view, except for the mountains, was due to be flooded by a giant US Army Corps of Engineers dam, the Tocks Island Dam. Even the lawn on which we sat and the house behind us was scheduled for inundation by the reservoir's murky waters.
The grass was green, the birds were singing, the sun was hot on our backs and then my father was saying, "They'll never build the dam. All the money is going to go to that war over in Vietnam."
I remember wavering. I thought my father was delusional (neighbors and friends all up and down that doomed valley were being served with condemnation papers) and yet, at the same time, I desperately wanted to believe him. Then, I slipped into belief. If I did so one of the things I loved best in the world, the family farm, would be spared by all the dollars draining down the septic system of the Vietnam War.
That misguided the-dam-will-never-be-built-belief lasted, perhaps, three weeks.
My temporary insanity regarding our President also reminds me of when I suddenly on a visceral level understood the worship of the American flag.
It was November 12, 2001 and I was writing an article on how I hated what I called the "flagification" of New York City. I was roaming through the city closely observing flags: the Dachshunds sporting Old Glory scarves around their necks, the new stars-and-stripes decals on the subway cars, the six-story bank on Fifth Avenue completely swathed in the red-white-and-blue, the proliferation of mega-flags on construction sites, the miniature flags stuck in baseball caps, and so forth.
This was also when fellow New Yorkers and I were jumpy as fleas. Low-flying planes, ambulance sirens, repeated anthrax scares on the subway, the grim images of death and disaster that had been burned into our cortex and the persistent smell had us nervous wrecks. The ghastly, retch-inducing smell of burning concrete, computers, synthetic rugs, aluminum, plastic furniture and, alas, flesh was inescapable.
Monday, November 12, 2001, like September 11, was an uncannily beautiful, clear day. There was a Colorado-blue sky. Although we knew better, it seemed that there was not a speck of pollution in the air.
As on 9/11 it is my partner's urgent voice on the answering machine that clues me into another disaster. I start crying as I hear about the plane diving into Fair Haven, Queens, and all 265 passengers presumed dead. At this point, we do not know if it's a terrorist attack or not.
My sister calls from Hawaii and hearing my shaky voice, says, "You must be scared." I, tough-upper-lipper, quickly retort, "Oh no, I'm not scared." After I hang up, I realize I'm terribly afraid.
When I step out the front door on my way to my job in Brooklyn, a car speeds by, flags rippling from the two front antennas. Suddenly, deep in my gut I feel I would like to wrap myself in the flag: swirl it around my shoulders as a cape, swaddle myself in the comfort and strength of those alternating bands of red and white, that reliable constellation of stars.
A few city blocks later I see the flags hanging from their specially installed poles in the medians on Park Avenue. The sight positively cheers me. How grand they are, furling and unfurling in the crisp fall wind. The effect is momentarily thrilling. We are the best - and unbeatable. I feel powerful and safe. Nobody could "whup us."
The sensation lasted for a few minutes and then I came to my senses.
All three of these examples have a theme of protection. Please protect me. Make it all okay again. They also have a magical or mythical quality. There's an imagined Eden, the Eden of when Daddy and Mommy sheltered and loved me and bad things didn't happen. There's the promise: you can be safe again, if only you listen to Dad or Dubya, if only you become a patriot and worship and love the flag.
The three examples have another even more worrisome component. There's this visceral and irrational quality. Your mind says, "Hey, this is nonsense." But your heart, your gut, your physical being is beaming another message, "Hmmm. I love this. It feels good."
This conflict between gut and mind reminds me what it feels like when you're in a totally committed relationship. Then someone swims into your safe, cozy harbor. Every cell in your body starts spinning and doing somersaults. You feel a deep, tidal, primal pull towards this person, this utterly charming, brilliant, funny and predatory shark that seems to specialize in deranging your body's chemistry.
You wake up and say, "No." You breathe a sigh of relief. (Whew that was a close call!) It was tempting, but back to slippers and, with your sweetie, reading in front of the fire.
Added to the theme of protection is this yawning need that undoes rational thought. This is where the Republican machine is onto something extraordinarily powerful. With all the Hollywood hoopla they go for the visceral. Get folks in the gut.
With my Dad and the dam, the delusion - everything is going to be okay-played right into the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers. It encouraged a roll-over-and-play-dead strategy. If you believe nothing is going to happen, why bother to fight? Later, by the time you wake up, when the train has run over you, it's too late.
In the case of the Tocks Island Dam I chose to fight and became one of the leaders of a seven-year battle to stop the dam. This battle, quite astoundingly, was successful.
In the case of Dubya obviously we also have to fight. But we, the anti-Bushers, the anti-smash-the-worlders, haven't yet figured out how to articulate and envision in a powerful and compelling way an answer to the profound, primeval human cry for security.
Mina Hamilton is a writer in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.