Monday, September 3, 2007

What Truly Sucks

Leave Lauren Caitlin Upton alone. Miss South Carolina Teen USA's rambling, incoherent response to the problem of American geographical ignorance may make one feel superior and smug, but she's hardly out of the mainstream. Plus, Upton's only a kid; and given what's not being taught in U.S. schools these days, you really can't expect much more than what she gave, especially at a fucking beauty pageant. Hell, pluck any random adult wandering around a Midwestern mall and place them on the same stage, give them the same question under the same conditions and see what you get. You may land someone who has a passing idea of what's going on, and where, but based on my travels over the past few years, I seriously doubt it.

Having two kids in school has given me a front-row seat to how our children is learning, and sisters and brothers, 'tis not a pretty sight. You'd think that a campus town would provide better-than-average education and educators, but in my experience, this simply isn't the case. The boy's had a few fine teachers, one in particular was first-rate (he had her twice in three years, which we requested), but overall, it's been dismal, especially for the teen. This is why parents must supplement their children's education at home, extending lessons when not merely filling various learning gaps. How many parents do this on a regular basis, I've no idea. In our home, there is constant quizzing, deeper reading lists, exposure to authors and artists that most local schools would never dare assign, lest the parents protest, which they often do. This is not a boast, but the reality. Slam the schools all you like, but if you honestly want to get to the core of our national fear and ignorance, begin with the parents and go from there.

My pal Jon Schwarz has taken a break from his dog-eared copy of "Watership Down" to lament this general American suckiness, which is even more pronounced as a U.S. military strike on Iran appears likely. If committed activists like Jon and like-minded others can't rouse the masses to oppose the next savage phase, then what good are they? What's the fucking point?

Looks as if Jon's hit the same wall I hit at the close of the first Gulf War.

From the moment Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990, to the flag-waving nationalistic rallies in early-'91, I wrote, spoke, and debated the build-up to and during the bombing of Iraq. I still have my datebook from that time, page after page filled with radio shows, writing deadlines, college gigs, TV debates. I took anything offered to me, via FAIR, which I represented. Audience size didn't matter (though I did appear on some large stages, including CNN in primetime, during the first week of bombing). All that mattered was trying to educate the public about the history of Western imperialism in the Middle East, and how the attack on Iraq was part of a larger geopolitical policy which had nothing to do with "punishing aggression," or even more laughable, "self-defense."

I even worked part-time as an unpaid promoter, in one instance convincing a producer friend at C-SPAN to book Christopher Hitchens live at the onset of hostilities. This was back when Hitchens made anti-imperial arguments, and had published a long piece in Harper's about the history of Gulf geopolitics. He was not the ubiquitous media presence he is now -- far from it. It was a rarity to hear his arguments on national TV, and when C-SPAN pit him against Morton Kondracke, who made the pro-war case that Hitchens does today (though with far less bile), Christopher wiped the floor with him while patiently deflecting hostile phone calls. I was in the green room next to the studio during this broadcast, and I beamed while watching the live feed on the room's monitor. Surely, this would help stem the war mania that was prevalent throughout the American mass media.

Umm, no.

I suppose that Kondracke's dizzy belief afterward that he had schooled Hitchens should have warned me, but I was young and still green in places. People believe what they want to believe, and if they insist on fantasy, or worse, indifference, no amount of factual argument will sway them. When I attended the "victory" rally in lower Manhattan after the war "ended" (i.e. moved into Phase Two -- sanctions and continual bombing, after allowing Saddam to slaughter the Shi'a), I was crushed. All those countless hours of direct engagement felt meaningless to me. What good did I do? If I didn't exist, the same series of events would have played out as they did, so what was the point? I'd felt despair well before the bombs fell on Baghdad, and by December '90, I had developed a love affair with gin, which I used to deaden the pain after a day's agitation in the face of corporate media assault. By the time of the "Turkey Shoot," where U.S. pilots bravely massacred retreating Iraqi conscripts (many of whom were Shi'a), I was 17 pounds heavier due mostly to drink. I had never felt so worthless. I wrote a letter to Noam Chomsky, who was one of my mentors through this whole process, and apologized for my failure (which Noam brushed aside and advised me to forge a wider perspective). I then left FAIR, went to a cabin near Woodstock, quit drinking, and swam naked in a large lake with a younger woman who still had radical stars in her eyes.

Such are the privileges of living in an imperialist country. I got to retreat, lose weight, get laid, while the death machine in the Gulf and Middle East kept rolling along.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying to Jon, I understand your despair. But know that your efforts do make a difference, however small and incremental. The brutal bottom line is that the owners of this country can wage war whenever they want to, and there's very little, if anything, we can do to stop them. We can make noise, educate those open to our arguments, perhaps make it harder for mass murder and torture to be so easily accepted. But we're up against massive power and layers of apologetics and lies that protect that power. This is a long-term struggle. Don't bail on us already.