“As too much power leads to despotism, too little leads to anarchy, and both eventually to the ruin of the people.”
“There is no virtue [in] America. That commerce which preside[d over] the birth and education of these states has [fitted] their inhabitants for the chain and … the only condition they sincerely desire is that it may be a golden one.”
-- Alexander Hamilton
The message was -- Stay on message.
The Dems’ message this year is equally as simple and simplistic. It amounts to a real-estate mantra: location, location, location. Iraq, Iraq, Iraq.
Chanting that slogan, millions of people will follow the Dems into the next Slough of Despond. A large part of me hopes they succeed. An even larger part hopes they open their eyes before they sink too deep.
We have, in fact, been sinking for a long time -- since Hamilton’s day and before.
What led the 24-year old genius to decry so lugubriously the character of his fellow patriots and anti-monarchists? They were nearing the end of their epic struggle against the British super-power, and already the seeds of discontent were rankling these nascent Americans.
It was an age of giants, and Hamilton was one of the supernal. Short of stature, he impressed his peers with oratorical, argumentative and rhetorical skills that conjured Cicero and Demosthenes. He was Washington’s chief aide, helped him write letters (!), win military and diplomatic battles. He was to establish the young nation’s fiscal policies and sound credit without which the United States would have foundered upon the rocks of insolvency. No one ever thought more about the meaning of establishing a new Republic in North America. No one expressed himself on that subject with greater thought and care. No one tried more earnestly to find the pivot between the extremes of despotism and anarchy. And, no one met a more tragic end.
The “West Indian bastard” understood, as few Americans have, a basic flaw in our character: while we sing or prattle about liberty and freedom, it is the “golden chain” by which we are hanged -- and often, by which we hang ourselves. It is the golden chain of “commerce” -- expansion, exploitation, conquest. These are the cultural values of a nation that grew wealthy on slave labor, rum running and genocide -- values for which Americans have killed and died for generations. Because they are our cultural values, and not our professed political values, they are so thoroughly ingrained they elude self-examination. Cultural values subsume political and economic values. Political Science and Economics are among the soft sciences taught in our universities. They are reducible to formulae, and they may be studied, elaborated, contravened. Cultural values are imbibed with Mother’s milk. They are the sea in which we swim. They appear irrefutable.
We look around at the many problems that plague our fragile planet and we want hard and fast “political” solutions. We seize upon slogans: “54-40 or Fight”; “Remember the Alamo”; “The War to End All Wars”; “The War to Save Democracy”; “Godless Communism”; “Weapons of Mass Destruction”; “the Domino Effect”; “With Us or with the Terrorists”; “War on Terror.”
Peggy Noonan established her reputation, wrote books and earned millions on the basis of five words: “A thousand points of light.” David Frum accomplished the same hat trick even more succinctly: “Axis of Evil.” Having beaten the dead horse of “Stay the Course,” the Administration will now replace it with “Benchmarks,” leaving the hapless Tony Snow to explain the difference. He might say, “Cut and Run” is always bad; “Stay the Course” used to be good, but is now passé; “Benchmarks” is good until we find a better speechwriter.
And the hoi polloi may be pulleyed along. For my part, as a cultural critic, I hope someone -- someone in the news media perhaps (but it is too much to hope) -- someone may say that he would rather cut and run from stupidity and brutality than embrace an idiot policy of staying the course or the equally asinine policy of benchmarks.
We are as likely to get such clear thinking and such forthright expression as we are likely to win the War on Terror. Principally, because our culture no longer leverages clear thinking or forthright expression, we are deluged with inanities, constant noise, and distractions. Our establishment poets and literati are too busy shmoozing for grants and sucking up for sinecures to trouble themselves with the mundane affairs of working people, the unemployed, the disaffected, lost or forgotten. Our students do not learn the basics of logic; only an ethereum master the art of critical thinking. They are instead inculcated with values from Day One: Salute the flag, obey authority -- the boss, the government -- get regimented -- for future employment, consumption patterns, the army, police or Homeland Security.
Inculcation: from inculcare: to grind under the heel.
This election season we will hear the drumbeat again: Get out and vote; if you don’t vote, you can’t complain. Vote for me, trust me. My opponent is a scumbag. My Black opponent sleeps with white women (or really wants to). In your heart, you know he’s right. I will not send American boys to do the fighting Asian boys should do. And on and on the noisome music plays ad nauseum.
We will buy the myths again because we have been inculcated, heeled under, by those myths: the myth of a free country, a democracy beholden to the people, the myth of a responsive leadership, an informed electorate. Amazingly, a people whose students barely rank in the top 20 of industrialized nations’ test scores, will presume that it has the God-given wisdom to rule the world, and the authority to terrorize the world with its weapons of mass destruction. We will smell each other’s acrid fear and we will tell each other we are the best people in the world, and “they” hate us for our freedoms. While we titillate each other over the behavior of sexual miscreants in high places, we shall grant carte blanche to the weaponization of space, the water boarding of “enemy combatants,” the nullification of the Kyoto Protocols, dispensing with habeas corpus and reinterpreting the Geneva Accords. We may do so grudgingly and above the protests of some brave and/or foolish souls. We shall do so because the preservation of our cultural values is our first and foremost consideration. And those values, again, are ingrained in our particularly nasty form of “commerce”: expansion, exploitation, conquest. (At their wits’ end, as usual, the Bush Administration, has been sounding the cymbal of commerce more clashingly of late. Forget Iraq, they implore; look at how well the economy is doing!)
Inspired by this “funny season” of electioneering, here are some hard truths from a self-confessed cynic that most inculcated Americans will not like to hear:
* It is a hoax and a slander that men have died to give me the right to vote. They died in service to the State, often compelled to serve out of fear of heterodoxy or the shame of standing apart. They have fought as often as not for misunderstood or barely understood concepts, cheered on with slogans and anodynes. They did not fight for me or my choices because they could not possibly prophesy what choices I would have or desire.
* The Empire had to perpetuate the myth of a “market-place of ideas” while simultaneously demonizing ideas generated by the Counterculture of the 60s and 70s -- intellectually the most serious internal threat to State power since the Progressive movement of the 30s. The Counterculture’s “Peace, Love and Rock and Roll” were cannibalized, caricatured, commercialized, eviscerated, packaged and sold back to its naïve, youthful adherents until they lost meaning and flavor. The Summer of Love of 1968 is the obverse of the Winter of our Discontent of 2006.
* The State invariably inflates and conflates its enemies so the populace will surrender its safeguards and liberties to the overweening authority of the State. Marijuana was conflated with heroin, condemned as a “threshhold drug.” Our War on Terror would not exist if the War on Drugs (i.e., Drug Victims) had not preceded it. The War on Drugs was our threshold war. (I suppose chocolate chip cookies are threshold niblets on the road to obesity. But, so far as I know, no one has locked up the Keebler Elves.)
* Whoever controls the information controls the imagination, George Orwell wrote. I’ll add my arpeggio to the Master: whoever fashions the definitions controls the processes of thought; those who promulgate their ideologies and brook no countervalence, circumscribe the boundaries of thought.
* Those who decry the loudest about the dangers of the “slippery slope” are themselves greasing the highways to catastrophe. The Bush Administration and its Congressional cohorts call for more torture to prevent attacks. Will we extract fingernails to prevent bombing? How far will we go? If waterboarding is now de jure, can the Iron Maiden be far behind? The Strappado?
* This is a disgusting world we are modeling, a world of excess, slave and slave-master of the kind Hamilton and Paine deplored. (Paine: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a slave-master.”) The U.S., far from the well-intentioned naif among cutthroats -- as it has so often portrayed itself -- wisecracking, ironic, but basically good, fair-minded John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, et. al. -- has been a major architect for centuries. We can no longer afford our ignorance, myopia and stupidity. It is no longer “My country, right or wrong,” but “My planet, right or wrong.” And if it is wrong, we had best figure out how to fix it. Love of country is fine, but it is fatuous love if it subverts love of planet. After all, the planet was bequeathed to us by “Nature’s God”; our countries are man-imagined entities.
* A world in which tens of millions of children die each year because of lack of clean drinking water, sufficient food and adequate health care is an obscene world of horrid imbalance. It is an over-populated world in which the wealthy and powerful encourage the underclasses to over-produce themselves, thus driving down wages and adding to the misery index of the masses. The slaves are driven by their religious taskmasters to keep stoking the system of their oppression. Thus, while our industries and technologies and financial institutions globalize, the world’s citizens have less and less to bring to the table -- concretely and metaphorically. The middle class is hollowed out, made more insecure, while the evil is externalized, placed on the shoulders of the Other. The Earth shrinks and the power of the State expands into our living rooms, bedrooms, hearts and minds.
* Whatever the celebrated philanthropy of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Oprah, et. al, a world in which billionaires coexist with a billion starving people, mostly women and children -- is obscene.
* The old need continual reaffirmation of the status quo from which they’ve profited. The new generation needs to constantly re-evaluate, learn what values may be properly and prudently reaffirmed, spurn those that entrench it and diminish the human spirit.
“We are in the first day of creation,” Thoreau wrote. And, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” Have we merely the blind courage to follow idiot, corrupt, maniacal leaders, or have we the earned courage to challenge the stale bromides of Rumsfeldian antiques, to forge a framework for a new millennium of peace, hope, prosperity, equality, mutual respect and shared power?
Let us build on the worthy foundations of the past; or, finding them wanting, like the ancients, build city upon city, stratum upon stratum, until we get it right. Our present and future are not compassed in slogans, sound bytes, or political poppycock. Our past is not a shrine to be worshipped thoughtlessly; it is a textbook to be studied and critiqued.
Gary Corseri has taught in public schools and prisons in the U.S., and at US and Japanese universities. His work has appeared at Dissident Voice, Palestine Chronicle, TeleSurtv.net, CounterPunch, CommonDreams, The New York Times, Village Voice, Uruknet, City Lights Review, Atlanta-PBS, WorldProutAssembly and 200 other websites and publications. His books include: Manifestations (edited); Holy Grail, Holy Grail; and A Fine Excess. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Articles and Poems by Gary Corseri
Losing the War
of Civilizations: Turning Wine into Blood