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Marin County and the Permissive Society (March 20, 2002)

Like John Walker Lindh I grew up in posh, left-leaning Marin County and joined an authoritarian cult that methodically killed thousands of my fellow Americans. It was 1973 and after years of exposure to permissive norms I had little sense of direction and interviewed for a job at the local McDonald's. My divorced parents raised no objection and soon I was making a major contribution to cardiovascular disease as I bagged fries, flipped burgers, and hyped deep-fried pies to future victims of arteriosclerosis and congestive heart failure. Luckily, nobody reported the case to the Attorney General, so I was spared Ashcroft-like denunciations about youth being no absolution for treachery, nor self-advancement an excuse to take up lard against one’s country. In fact, I was rewarded for participating in McDonald’s nation-wide attack on the public health: my official transcripts registers 40 credits for what is called, appropriately enough, WEEP, the school acronym for work experience. This represents 20% of the units required for graduation and an interesting revelation of elite educational standards at the time. Permissive society, indeed. 

My plunge into McDonald’s occurred after 16 years of indoctrination in consumer society. Well-meaning but impressionable, I actually enjoyed the job, which was certainly preferable to sitting in a hard chair all day listening to teacher monologues I thankfully no longer remember. So I stayed on for four years, earning high marks for my work on “lot and lobby” (janitor), “fries and-shakes,” “window” (cash register), “dressing” (putting condiments on buns), “grill” and “buns.” My indulgent parents dutifully supported me, paying my living costs while McDonald’s profited off my underpaid labor (I started at $1.80 an hour in 1973 and ended up at $4.50 an hour in 1977). By the last two years I made manager and was considered for Hamburger University, the holiest of holies in the fast food world. I thought it an honor but fortunately never went, else today I might be saddled with a degree in “Hamburgerology.” 

It was corporate liberalism's presumption of “value-free” neutrality and education as a meal-ticket to the job market that led to this abdication of communal responsibility. Swamped in tolerance for commercialism, my parents figured I was “keeping out of trouble,” while my teachers and counselors were pleased I was acquiring job skills, though of what long-term use burger-flipping and milkshake-making actually were they never bothered to explain. The presumption was that learning to make any kind of living is the purpose of education, so no one questioned this highly dubious expenditure of my teen years. Since I was making money I was obviously on the success track, and what could be more important than that? 

Another area where the County distinguished itself for excessive tolerance was in anti-Arab racism. I remember a morning assembly at Granada Elementary, a Montessori school regularly featured on national TV for its innovative architecture and learn-at-your-own-pace curriculum. Israel had just launched its successful blitzkrieg assault on Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the Six Day War and our teachers ridiculed what they took to be Arab military ineptitude. The Arabs ran from toy bombs dropped by the Israelis, they laughed, which turned out to be nothing more than packages of glass that broke upon hitting the ground. Full of mirth, we enjoyed the image of hapless Arabs running away from harmless packages, never learning of the effects of the real bombs or the napalm Israel used in that war. None of the teachers lost their jobs for this lesson in racism and maybe they shouldn’t have, since by the Supreme Court’s “community standards” criterion, promoting racist stereotypes of Arabs is too routine to qualify as an offensive act. Check with your local video shop — all Arabs are corrupt sheiks, barbaric terrorists, or medieval camel jockeys — fair game for abuse. Thus it was no surprise years later when Marin County native Robin Williams mocked Egyptian military abilities in a TV tribute to Jonathan Winters, ridiculously dropping an imaginary rifle over and over to characterize Arabs as buffoons. 

The County has also been far too lenient towards the wealthy, allowing them to stream in and drive up the price of housing to the point where it now costs $4,000 or more to move into a 1-bedroom apartment and there are the beginnings of shanty housing in the hills. When I was a child, on the other hand, Sausalito resembled a Mediterranean fishing village, with street artists, boat dwellers, and other bohemians mixing amiably with middle class professionals and businessmen. The rich took a liking to this atmosphere and bought the place up, in the process driving out the artists and houseboat people who made the town attractive in the first place. Now it is a magnet for tourists and yuppies and there is no street life to speak of. For some reason Trent Lott has yet to condemn this casualty of the permissive society.

How does one recover from growing up amidst such misguided tolerance? Well, a dissident reading list helps. Sometime during my university studies I washed up on the shores of Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Howard Zinn, Michael Parenti, Jonathan Kozol, Edward Said, and Marilyn French, taking a long look at their sobering offerings. My excessive tolerance towards unaccountable authority rapidly dissolved and I found myself questioning the legitimacy of endless wars, limitless profit, permanent racism, male supremacy, in short, the entire direction of the contemporary United States. Two years ago in the very same Marin County that had taught me to see the world in value-neutral terms, I taught ESL for a year at the local community college. One night I wrote these lines: 

I look into the faces of my ESL students at the College of Marin, still eager after a half-compensated workday. I regret the language barrier that leaves so many questions unasked. 

Seeing Ermith I think of desperate refugees sent back to Haiti through shark-infested waters. Taking in Rosa’s smile I remember the fall of Arbenz triggering an orgy of anti-Communist bloodletting. Listening to Kathleen’s harrowing tale of escaping Vietnam by boat I think of an ocean of dioxin putting her craft to launch. Saying hello to Sang I recall Korea converted to a corpse-strewn wasteland under the iron rule of rival dictatorships. Greeting Eduardo I am reminded of 70,000 murdered by Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “moderate authoritarians” in El Salvador. Collecting a paper from Zelalem I think of mountains of African bones bleaching the floor of the Atlantic. Hearing Rigoberto talk of Cuernavaca I reflect on James Polk plundering a third of Mexico on the fraudulent pretext of “American blood shed on American soil.” Glancing at Adela I think of Bolivian tin miners with rotting lungs and Che Guevara tracked down and murdered by the CIA. Resenting Marcia arriving typically late, I remind myself that US reparations for overthrowing the Brazilian government are even more overdue. Listening to Jose I see half the Honduran population starving to death while Washington converts the country to a military base from which to make war on Nicaraguans. Turning to Masahito I remember two huge fireballs incinerating 200,000 Japanese and cursing generations unborn with genetic deformities. Correcting an answer from Vladimir I recollect CIA anti-Communist forces parachuted into the Ukraine to join up with an army once supported by Hitler. 

A student tells me his nationality, and I thank God I know not a single thing about his native Bhutan. 

Happily, there are increasing signs that I am far from alone, that many Marinites are intolerant of Empire. Thanks to tireless organizers, on a recent Saturday morning two hundred people turned out for a seminar critical of US policy in the Middle East and on separate evenings William Blum and Father Roy Bourgeois spoke against the war in Afghanistan and the U.S. School of the Americas to large, appreciative audiences. The good Father welcomed President Bush’s call to shut down terrorist training camps wherever they may be, suggesting he start with Fort Benning in Georgia where the US trains Latin American military officers in the art of counterinsurgency — a fancier name for terrorism. After speaking on the theme of “Expansion of Empire,” Blum said in his question period that there is one group he has more trouble getting through to than even the far right: liberals. 

They cannot believe the American Empire is not benevolent at heart, so they permissively let it run amok.

(Michael K. Smith is the author of excellent and highly regarded, “The Greatest Story Never Told — A People’s History of the American Empire, 1945-1999,” published by Xlibris.)

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