I am amazed that I have never even been in an Oldsmobile. Cadillacs, Gremlins, Jaguars, GMCs — I even drove a Ferrari once — but not a nanosecond in an Oldsmobile. This is to acknowledge the plain fact that my understanding of America is necessarily limited. Likewise, I have never been to Missouri or to Vermont or to Kansas or to any of eleven other states. I have never been to New York City or to Intercourse, Pennsylvania. I have never been higher in any building than (I think) the 22nd floor. I have never been inside a jail. Only once have I ever been inside a WalMart, and on impulse at the checkout counter bought a half-dozen antenna-balls, six happy-faces with cowboy hats and pigtails in Gonzales, Texas.
But I have seen my seven decades reflected in the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial and looked up at the mirror inside the lighthouse marking the entrance to San Francisco Bay. I have been backstage at Willie’s Fourth of July Picnic in Austin and marched for a couple of blocks beside Caesar Chavez in Sacramento. I’ve been inside a B-52 and stood beside the generators deep in the innards of Glenn Canyon Dam. I’ve stood for the Pledge of Allegiance at school board meetings and voted in every presidential election since Lyndon Johnson’s. I once pitched a no-hitter and got my picture in the paper.
There is nothing the slightest bit unusual in any of this. — you can do it at home while chopping kindling. But what it all leads to — or, at least, what it has led to in the present case — is a life lived under a large, amorphous, and vaguely patriotic cloud. When I was an English teacher, I’d sometimes direct my students to elaborate on which version of patriotism they leaned toward, that of “The Star Spangled Banner” or that of “This Land Is Your Land” (it wasn’t a survey, but they split about 40/60). Sometimes I’d play Kate Smith belting “God Bless America” between Springsteen and Elmore James on KMUD. Then, I’d read a scheduled underwriter’s announcement for dope growers’ greenhouses and maybe news of a helicopter flyover out toward the Mattole.
There is something inherently ugly and aggressive about nationalism, but patriotism — love of country — possesses a certain purity — amber waves of grain and all of that. Warm and runny and strong emotions come easily here. It is not easy to remain unmoved, for example, when a competent soprano hits all the high notes as the elegance of baseball waits all potential out there in front of you. How can you pick your way carefully across a hidden and unnamed creek ten miles off the end of a dirt road up Woodman Canyon without thinking, however fleetingly and far away, of Lewis and Clark or Thoreau? Whitman. There is no sense of ‘better’ here, only a sense of history and culture: mine. And, probably, yours.
So it was a cold bowl of chili, to borrow Neil Young’s splendid image, when the Supreme Court — those same folks who brought us George Bush-the-Younger — decided few weeks ago that, in the future, there would be no further limits on corporate contributions to political campaigns. Coca Cola could, for example, spend as much as it thought that it needed to convince you and most around you that taking your water would not only improve your life, but would probably lead to multiple orgasms as well. WalMart will be happy to explain why you didn’t need that land anyway. Against lovely visuals of the sky and the vanishing forests, Exxon can easily explain it all away to the beat of African drums over heavy rhythm right there on your 48” flatscreen in 3-D and digital surround, all downloadable at the sound of your voice. They can take your candidate, wrap him or her in whatever costume they desire, and sell the grinning apparition back to you as your future, complete with a Grammy-nominated soundtrack.
Over the span of my lifetime, America has all but destroyed its labor unions, eliminated millions of jobs, made it much harder to declare bankruptcy, and demonized pretty much everyone anywhere in the world with the misfortune not to be a successful American capitalist. At this point, capitalist culture seems well on its way to destroying the middle class and thereby what used to be called, without irony, the American Dream. This is most often expressed with insufferable smugness and is read most accurately as arrogance wherever we go, which is to say everywhere.
A few months ago, President Obama and his entourage were poised to descend upon Copenhagen (from clouds of carbon) trailing fairy dust while singing Kumbaya and distributing homeopathic vials of cooperation to everyone. This maneuver turned out to be about as successful as the one he’d employed earlier in winning the Olympics for Chicago. Little useful, at least little publicly useful, came out of the Copenhagen world climate summit. Polls published in January indicate that fewer than half of all Americans even believe in the concept of important climate change anymore (this exercise in radical Narcissism is similar to someone declaring airily that he doesn’t believe in gravity or the Second Law of Thermodynamics). This is not leadership, it is mere posturing, and largely due to it, we are likely — thanks most recently to five guys in robes — doomed.
No human being with any plausible claim to sanity could possibly maintain as a teacher — at least as a public school teacher — without a prominent Pollyanna streak. Long term, there is simply no alternative to unlocking the classroom door every morning with the full and explicit intent to wreak some goodness on the world; unless you’re just going to pass the time, at least in high school, roomsful of horny adolescents with their minds on four million other things will have it no other way. I am happily retired now, and so no longer in the classroom. I don’t know whether this makes me more or less amazed that, to all appearances, folks are still able to rise to the daily challenge. I honestly don’t understand how this is possible when beliefs from here on out will be largely paid for by Exxon and explained neatly on a bubble test and the folks who know the best doubt that we will recognize our world at the far end of those young people’s lifetimes. Too cynical? Perhaps…
Back when Bush-the-Lunatic was still in office, Lewis Lapham charged him with “removing from the future its conjugations of hope.” Hope is more-or-less what we sold at Oxford West (Laytonville High School, to the taxpayers of Mendocino County and their carefully-chosen administrators.) It was there when Rebecca climbed down off the school bus with her friends whose parents couldn’t, or wouldn’t, give them rides, and it was there in the afternoon when, a little more tired and bedraggled from it all, she and her friends climbed back on. It was there at midnight when the choice was between slugging down a few shots and passing the pipe in the back seat of somebody’s car at the park or slumping on the couch to read another chapter of that god damned history book; it was even there when, reeking of skunkweed, two cheerleaders and a substitute custodian were hauled off in cuffs one afternoon to the lockup in Ukiah for smoking dope in one of the baseball dugouts.
Somehow, in spite of the mold on the walls and that persistent smell of propane from the music room — even the toadstools in the bathroom — adolescent Pollyanna made it through to graduation and even successfully resisted the temptation to moon the assembled crowd on her way out. She graduated and got on with her life, small and cramped or swathed in glory, as life itself would have it. But when she was in high school, her future looked promising, at least here-and-there, and at least some of the time, and, at the very least, to her. Or maybe she was headed to Stanford or Georgetown and the future shined like diamonds pretty much all the time anyway.
A noisome stew of actions and inactions on the part of folks and institutions she may or may never have heard of or cared in the least about has made Pollyanna’s likely future more perilous by magnitudes than any faced by her ancestors since they first climbed out of the slime. A few days ago, a group of the brightest and most prescient scientists in the world concluded, ominously, that continuation of present actions on the part of practically all the nations of the world virtually assures a rise in average temperature of at least 3 degrees Celsius by the end of this century: ninety years, news mostly buried by the Gulf oil catastrophe and Arizonans’ difficulties with the Mexicans. Pollyanna’s kids will be in their sixties by the time this happens, and the world and anyone’s, and every thing’s, future on it will be radically more — ahem — challenging than it is today. At least.
It is so utterly easy to blame someone — or anything — else: maybe the usual corporations, for some, the gummint, Bush (either one) lies ever at hand, the Jesuits or the pope or even Opus Dei, the Trilateral Commission, oligarchs, shady animal-rightists, Karl Rove, the whole fucking shape-shifting system. The truth of it is rather harder to bear. Like Pogo said, we did it. All of us. We did it by our very ways of life and ultimately because there were too many of us, adding up to too much of everything.
And now, orange-colored oil the consistency of mayonnaise (at best) spreads through the northern Gulf of Mexico. According to the best lights we have, it may be there for a very long time, and it will doubtless ooze into other areas. Hurricane season, predicted to be more dramatic than usual, will be upon us in weeks. Can you imagine?
I don’t begin to understand how any teacher who’s paying attention engenders anything like hope anymore without internalizing the noxious fog of platitude and earnestness: “We’ll rise to any challenge”, “the human spirit is indomitable”, and all the sorry rest of it. Corporations, or the next oligarch to wander by, can spend millions to convince us that all is in good hands and that it is well and as it should be; what used to be called ‘critical thinking’ may very well morph into a logical curio, something like a Venn diagram, a curiosity. Degree-by-slow-degree, the world will warm and the seas will acidify and — to all appearances so far — we will continue to bemoan the traffic snarls as we venture down the road to Chuck E. Cheese or our favorite high-status food store out beside the mall. We will live in a sorely wounded world, and we may even, now and then, remember hope… What was that again?