COLUMN 112, DECEMBER 1, 2004
(Copyright © 2004 The Blacklisted Journalist)
LAFAYETTE PARK BLUES
[Joe Bageant is a magazine editor and essayist living in Winchester, Virginia. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2004 by Joe Bageant.]
In the late 1960s I used to
sit in Lafayette Park across from the White House, have spring picnics on its
benches with hippie girlfriends and read Rimbaud while waiting for the Robert
Rauschenberg exhibit to open at the Corcoran Museum down the street. Usually
there would be protesters across Pennsylvania Avenue, sometimes chained to the
White House gate, a Buddhist monk or an anti-war group or mothers against
whatever. Those were freer times. I know they were freer because I was there, I
felt it and can remember it, as do millions of other Americans my age. So when
we now look at the White House with its steel wire, concrete barricades, police
dogs and snipers posted on rooftops, we cannot help but ask ourselves: What the
hell has happened to my country? Who imposed this national lockdown?
Admittedly, we were just
dumb artsy kids in those Lafayette Park days, youthful dreamers who couldn't
imagine ever being thirty years old (much less fifty-eight!) And in an age when
you could smoke a joint in the White House restrooms during a tour, we certainly
never imagined a time when special enclosures for public dissenters would be
given the authoritarian state term "Free Speech Zones." I never
thought I would hear our government brand the liberalism of Jefferson as
terrorism, never imagined an election could be successfully rigged in this
country and never thought I'd see the Supreme Court back a junta. I never
thought I would see three percent of our citizens pulling hard time in a vast
complex of prisons. I never thought I would see 9/11.
But most frightening has
been watching Americans accept all this in such Orwellian fashion. Which is what
one has to call it because our national behavior is way beyond anything that
could be called ordinary denial.
How in the hell did those
far right nutjobs pull this off? Well, for starters they had to erase public
memory of those freer times. So they ginned up the Heritage Foundation and the
Rand Institute's lie machines in a fashion that would make Joe Stalin and Kim
Il Sung proud. One of the first lies they had to sell (in what are now being
called the culture wars) was that freedom equals danger and charity equals
communism. After their success in the 1994 elections, rightwing propagandists
began identifying the Sixties generation as a "counterculture? and as the
source of all American social rot. When it came to this rank howl, the loudest
dog in the pen was history professor Newt Gingrich, who managed to hallucinate a
version of the Sixties in which "countercultural
McGoverniks," were somehow leftist agents in cahoots with The Great
Society, to tear down Western civilization.
Oh what a colorful
hallucination! Counterculture types were supposedly saving up gobs of spit for
Vietnam vets (though how it could be done, given the prevalent marijuana
"cottonmouth? of the times is beyond me) and welcoming the commie hordes
ashore at the San Francisco docks. And
it was somehow all Dr. Spock's fault.
According to the neocons,
this malignant counterculture started festering on the ass of the republic in
1965 and ended when the Republican Revolution lanced it in 1994. People like
Robert Bork and Gingrich had best sellers on the theme. Today this rank lie has
become a trope and is accepted as social history by a new generation.
Nevertheless, here we are forty years later and the issues confronted by the
Sixties counterculture still haunt us. Free speech, the right to control one's
own body and consciousness, the right to be unpatriotic, anti-nationalistic and
as obstreperous as we choose to be so long as no one gets hurt.
Even the best writers,
people such as Thomas Frank, miss this animating spirit of the era. Frank
describes it solely as a youth marketing phenomenon, and the Sixties was that,
too. But commerce was not the soul of the movement, which was as much spiritual
as political. Or, as my crotchety old friend, the blacklisted writer Al
Aronowitz says, 'the fact that public nudism, marijuana smoking, advanced
bisexuality, unmailable poetry, wino drunkenness, unconsecrated marriage " can
be termed a religious quest might come as a surprise to a public that swears it
doesn't partake of these joys."
one must forgive Frank missing such a
point since, as he admits in his book, he was a young Republican---which gave
him great insight into the Republican takeover of Kansas (What's Wrong With
Kansas? Thomas Frank)---but which is a distinct disadvantage in
understanding any kind of alternative culture. Much as I hate the clich?,
"You had to be there," Tom. Put simply, few generations ever loved being
self-realizing Americans more. And surely no generation ever had more goddamn
fun doing it.
That Sixties vision is gone from society, though it still inspires some in my generation who love this nation enough to resist its lesser angels. Not a majority---we were never a majority---but we were, nevertheless, many. There was nothing wrong with attempting to bring world peace and personal freedom and a joyful cosmology. In fact, the counterculture's aspirations were a lesser extension of its parents? aspirations, considering that at the end of World War II, 65 percent of Americans wanted "one world government? and all nuclear weapons under the management of the United Nations! Pacifists Bertrand Russell and Norman Thomas were right all their lives and are still right in death: a predatory corporate political culture's dependence upon war is antithetical to everything human. Laugh if you want, but many made commitments to this that involved risk and sacrifice and anyone who was serious in that movement can name friends who were ruined or died in the process. But they will also tell you it was the noblest public thing they ever did.
'sCREAMING MAN VOLUNTEERS
HIS SERVICES TO PERSONALLY DISARM THOSE NOSE-PICKING NEOCON SPAWN OF PIG JISM...AND
DE-NUT THEM LIKE THE FAT, BRAYING LITTLE FASCIST BEASTS THEY ARE. PEEL THEIR
ARYAN NATIONS TATTOOS FROM THEIR NAKED BODIES WITH A SET OF ELECTRIFIED PLIERS.
AND WHEN I DO, LADY LIBERTY THROW HER TORCH IN THE AIR, FLING UP HER SKIRT AND
SCREAM: "FREE AT LAST...THANK GOD ALMIGHTY...SOMEBODY ROLL ME A GODDAM
---Leftist Internet denizen called
As the above posting
illustrates, it is difficult, to say the least, for the real left to draw
attention these days, what with all the goose-stepping and God, guns and oil
rhetoric filling the public plaza. Hell, half a million demonstrators for
women's rights in Washington D.C. failed to get even local television
coverage, which gives some notion of the pitch and fervor of our war-crazed
republic. It is doubtful we could get any leftist concept whatsoever across to
Especially if that idea
requires genuine literacy. The American mindscape has become nasty intellectual
terrain since the Sixties, when most new concepts were transferred through
books. According to the Book Industry Study Group, less than half of American
adults read books---at all. Even then, half of the top sellers are
celebrity-based ga-ga stuff, mediocre fiction such as The Da Vinci Code,
or the rants of folks like Ann Coulter, prancing princess of the GOP vomitorium.
(Or vapid liberal comfort food such as Michael Moore's Stupid White Men.)
You are probably reading some book right now and I am writing one, but neither
of us is expecting to see a Jean-Paul Sartre revival anytime soon. Not in a
nation where a girl eating two feet of fried horse anus on reality TV commands
the awe of millions. Our national taste runs toward idiopathic grotesques, the
Coulters, Limbaughs and Liddys.
Ann Coulter can call for
the jailing of liberals and the treason trial of poor old Jimmy Carter to the
cheers of millions. To her credit, she was perceptive enough to understand that
the conservative hatefulness ceiling had risen substantially, and with a tad
more goosing it would produce best sellers---also that the GOP wanted badly to
prove that Republicans could show some fine leg too. By the way Annie, I see
by the centerfold in the GOP magazine that you have finally found a pair of
jackboots that reach all the way to your " And I must admit that the SS
double lightning nipple piercings are a nice touch.
Saner people try to write
it all off as the far right's rabid media moment, or quick-buck publishing,
assuring themselves no one takes such crap seriously. I can tell you that a
stunning number of people I know are convinced that Coulter's hysterical
recommendations are exactly what needs to be done. And they will do it too,
given the opportunity. Chances are that the reader thinks I am being hyperbolic.
So be it. But as I keep telling my liberal urban friends:
"It's a lot dumber and
meaner out here in the heartland than you believe."
The left could send two
million protesters to New York tomorrow and the heartland's response to the
news would be:
"Honey, come quick!
They've got a million tree-huggin homos in a free speech cage in New York!"
I live amid some of the
most dangerous voters in America, neocon snake handling Southerners, and I know
these people and I know what it says about part of America. It says that the
kinder, gentler Republican era of Newt Gingrich is far behind us.
The Republican revolution
is at full throttle now and if you get down on all fours and look at the world
like a Republican, you will see that we have never been more successful as a
nation. Five percent of our
citizens are either in prison on parole. We now have 6,000 bases in 130
countries. I am told that is about 4,000 more full installations than the Roman
Empire staffed with legions at its zenith. There is scarcely a citizen in this
militaristic economy of ours that does not have a stake in providing bullets or
Snickers bars, CD players, cell phones, depleted uranium shells or some
unimaginable death-dealing technology to the outposts of the empire.
What cannot be accomplished
with bribes and threats in the United Nations gets done with the fist, either by
our own or by putting weapons in someone else's. Or by offing some
democratically elected leftist leader suffering under the obscene notion that
people deserve enough daily bread to shit regularly. We remain quite true to our
roots as homicidal white Euro-trash hog thieves, despite the comforting national
lies regarding liberation and furthering democracy.
Speaking of lies since and
about the Sixties, one of the most pervasive is that all activists of the
counterculture grew into fat, happy yuppies. I know dozens who've remained true
to their beliefs at great personal cost to their lives and families...and now
teach in tribal schools, work in social services, clinics, etc. They are making
the world better and could do more given the chance. The trouble is, they have
no voice and are effectively kept out of politics because of their pasts, kept
from running for office by things like youthful drug possession charges, etc.
But we are starting to see some of their children enter the arena...children who
I know are sharers of the dream. It may well be that the best in my generation
inadvertently pulled off a coup by simply loving their kids and sharing their
hopes with them. If the coldest among us can impart their bitter vision to their
children, why can't the poets among us do the same?
You in the generation that came of age in the
"80s and "90s will have to bring new vision. What a line of bullshit! Sounds
like a politician. My god a?mighty! You confront a worse specter than we ever
did. You were born into a hardening
police state and have lived your lives inside the invisible bars of a corporate
military consumer society. Your government hands over your nation's coffers to
the feasting rich and plays shell games with the coffins of your brothers killed
at a voracious free market's far flung edges. And if you point any of these
things out you will be called "over the edge." Love it or leave it or stay
and suffer the consequences. It's not just you kid. All of us manage to love
America for deeper philosophical reasons feel like battered lovers these days.
Still, on the Internet---which is uniquely yours---some undefined new thing is stirring. There is the scent of that good old time freedom-loving chaos. A challenge to authority and the state-enforced social lie, voices rising above the foaming dreck. And they increase daily. Of course this anti-authoritarian challenge seems like quite a stir to those passionately involved, but at this point most Americans have no notion of it yet and, besides us, only the Department of Homeland Security is listening in on the conversation with any interest.
An informed polity needs
information, and Americans care do about the facts. We can give you the
basketball odds, tell you how many carbs are in a Sarah Lee cheesecake and name
the characters in 'shreck." Forget insignificant ones such as that 15,000
civilians were killed in the US attack and occupation of Iraq. This is not
important, which is why the media never informed us of it. Then too, dead sand
monkeys do not register in the American conscience as anything to grieve over.
They are the same color and speak the same jabber language as the freaks who
crashed those airliners. Right? America's racist colonial spirit is still
alive and kicking; it just doesn't wear sheets and hoods anymore. It wears
Chinese slave labor made garments and burns high test in its riding lawn mowers
and works one full month a year just to pay for its imperial armies.
This has not been a good
month. We had a death in my family and I had one of those late-life age brushes
with cancer. It's been a curious time of love and fear at home and as a
citizen. Love and fear both well describe what some of us feel these days in the
nation of the Great Dream'the republic putatively sprung full bloom from the
womb of the Enlightenment. Only America could have dreamed up a people such as
you and me, so funny, brave, obese, well-meaning, oblivious and full of shit.
Only America could have fattened us on its alleged idealism, then declared the
end of the Enlightenment and ordered us to Buy or Die, holding the entire world
at gunpoint so we could eat fried chicken in the comfort of our SUVs while
listening to Hood Hop on quad CD/MP3 in-car stereo. Only America could have
created this scientifically orchestrated consumption-based hell that calls
America: When we first
stepped onto this playground of the national soul together, I truly believed you
were not a bully, that you were the protector of queers and thick-tongued
immigrants and laboring spiritual hoboes like me. I have tossed down your dreams
straight from the bottle with no chaser, then bought a round for the house,
because this is the goddam land of the free where even a redneck boy from
Virginia can dream the dreams of bards, call himself a writer then walk away
from dark ancestral ghosts to actually become one.
I believed it all,
America. And I still fall for it if
I let my guard down?just like the abused wife who believes she will not be
punched again for that thousand and first time. All the neighbors ---whole
nations---believed in you too, despite the muffled screams of the black slave
and the Red Indian coming from within your own house. But now you are lurking on
the neighbors? porches smelling of the halls of Abu Gharib and gun grease and
there are no cops to call because you ARE the cops, so they are going to break
down the doors and cut your balls off.
I can't sleep at
nights and don't you pretend that you are asleep. Talk to me! You are going to
have to say you love your native son or this whole terrible ecstatic thing of
ours is over. You have changed over the many years we have been writhing
together in this little power struggle of yours and mine---the one between
little guy liberty and big authority. Now you have become the police court judge
of my days and I dare not even leave your house for a quart of milk or a look at
the stars. It's too late for counseling. You have broken my heart one too many
times. Cracked one too many ribs.
Time is short. Dawn will
bring nothing good, I promise you.
Speak to me like you used to.
Or it's over. ##
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THE MOVIE WAS FICTION. THE TRUE STORY IS STRANGER THAN FICTION: FOR MOST OF HIS SHORT BUT SPECTACULAR LIFE, BOBBY DARIN UNKNOWINGLY LIVED A LIE
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