Physically, psychically, and in every other way my thesaurus can describe, Oak Street in downtown Eugene is a very long way from the nearest killing field. This has been true since the folks who arrived in the wagons dismantled the old native cultures 170 years ago. Out in the desert beyond the Cascades, you can still see the ruts of their wagons. Today, it is not hard to see how in a few years — five? ten? fifteen? -- people like me and most of my friends might be lined up over there in the FedEx parking lot and shot unceremoniously like so many prisoners in some neo-native, Dostoyevskian nightmare, picturesque ruts in the high desert and a few surviving natives not to the contrary. The irony is not to be lost.
If anyone is going to be singled out like this, we will likely be singled out first because, looking out at what has become of the world we grew up in, we accept almost none of it and because most of us are pretty easy to recognize and because America is clearly a hugely violent place. Few of us are really good consumers, but the few who are more than make up for the deficiencies of the rest of us. If we vote, we vote for progressive candidates, the greener the better. Many of us give to community radio. A high percentage are pacifists. We are practiced at having a good time. There is a good deal of long hair and organics. Even dope-smoking. To those ordering us into lines and who hearken back to some fantasy of good and true — and armed — patriots, we are clearly at least the handy (and fairly docile) face of the enemy.
A decade ago, maybe more, I remember listening to someone in Garberville hold forth about how the entire northcoast of California got to be the way it was for pretty much the same reason that Disneyland and Yosemite are as they are: to act as magnets for large numbers of people. His idea was that the gummint was ultimately behind it, and that once the hippies were all concentrated, they’d just put up a high fence, let everyone else out, and be done with the lot of ‘em. This, of course, is simply the same hippie paranoia that has also spawned other outlandish theories from chemtrails to the purposeful poisoning of Mexican marijuana with Paraquat in order to poison a certain sort of ‘folk’ en masse, the improbable threats of Area 51 and Edwards Air Force Base, and the mysterious, ubiquitous sixty-cycle hum. The problem is that there is, sooner or later, a reason for most paranoia, and that, of course, the folks looking worriedly skyward may in the end — as a friend once suggested across the woodstove late one night, from the depths of a bottle of whisky -- be right in their dark and bitter suspicions.
The vision of dropping our wallets and handbags on that growing pile over there and the ominous popping from around behind the antique store will almost surely remain just a fantasy, at least anytime soon. The key word here is, of course, almost. Amazingly, at least in the present case, I am loathe to be cynical; I hate to be pessimistic, but in view of what’s happening in America right now, to be anything like an optimist is to be an especially fatuous sub-specie of fool. Pessimists, for example, are so very wont to see the worst in things that such belief has become a core definition of the word; and yet, to be hopeful is becoming more-and-more an exercise in ignoring clear and unambiguous information. The Republican congresspersons scheduled to become the next chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce recently proclaimed that climate change is plainly a fraud because the Bible promised that it would never happen and, anyway, all of us can simply stand in the shade. I am not making this up: it’s right there on U-Tube.
The real promise of this country dies quickly when the most conservative among us — and those seemingly most disposed to arms — refuse to allow the least aspect of the world to become different from the way they have decided that it all has to be. American life as they would have it would be much like life in an airport security checkpoint. Folks would be required just to shuffle along, removing their shoes when told, subject to whole-body scans and pat-downs as security dictated. In view of the overweening need to maintain order, any sort of humor would be discouraged. One of the least likely sounds to be heard in any airport is uncontrolled laughter. Beside the security lines in Louisville, for example, there are bins approaching the size of fifty-five gallon drums filling with the ten-inch baseball bats they hand out as tourist souvenirs at the Hillerich and Bradsby museum downtown; you can’t take them on the plane, but Transportation Security has set up little metal tables where you can mail them home to yourself if, magically, you somehow have planned for the packaging. How they might be used by terrorists is a scenario pretty much too bizarre to contemplate, but dammit, don’t you dare laugh. The last time I stood in a security line there, the Dixie Chicks swung sweetly from the hidden speakers.
He’s been dead for almost twenty years now, but still, I sometimes wonder what my father would make of all this. Born in 1910, and thus coming to what used to be called ‘manhood’ in the Great Depression, he became a lifelong Roosevelt Democrat when the still-jaunty president got him his first real job, as a laborer, living in a tent with the woman who’d become my mother and helping to build Fort Peck Dam on the edge of the plains in Montana. Later, he got drafted and built landing strips on Pacific beaches so cargo planes could bring supplies to invading troops; smoking and playing cards one Sunday morning on the deck of a transport ship in Leyte Harbor in the Philippines, his ship was targeted by a suicidal Japanese pilot, and he earned a Purple Heart. He made the Corps of Engineers his career. As a voter, he once told me that his biggest regret lay in having voted for Nixon when he had the opportunity to go for Kennedy. Stevenson was a kind of hero, and the last time he voted for president he voted for Jesse Jackson.
Overt shows of patriotism are not common among people who are into tie-dye and growing their own dope, but this does not mean that these folks are not, in their way, patriotic. America’s right-wing has invested a good deal of time and money into painting the lot of them into a corner where they all seem blithering and probably dangerous and vaguely un-American idiots, too stupid with chemicals to understand how imbecilic they look and just how deeply un-funny being stoned is after awhile. In what passes for the real world, such a way of describing my friends and a few of my family holds about the same few mille-measures of truth as Conservative descriptions of steel-workers or Mexicans or unions. This is what would likely grab my father’s surprised suburban attention.
So it is from the standpoint of a culture (like most others) that just wants to be happy and left to itself, a culture, in this case, that has gone so far as to try to establish its own currency and, at bottom, which does not really like most newcomers, at least not right away — those are the fingers that write this. Something pretty much identical could, of course, be fashioned to describe almost any place in America. Arriving somehow at a place where you can be left alone defines much of what it means to be an American these days. In its way, being left alone is as American as a double-header at Wrigley on the Fourth of July or a Sunday afternoon in the lingerie department down at the WalMart between the strip and the Interstate.
To watch or to listen to the daily news — from Amy Goodman to Glen Beck, from Moyers to Limbaugh & Co., ‘whatever,’ as they say — is to slog into the festering depths of literal despair. Startling magnitudes of those with access to air or cable appear to be deranged lunatics unlikely to survive overnight anywhere else on earth; an army of staring zombies would be a serious improvement here. The sensible seem overwhelmed. On the evidence, a few seem to have little talent but to spew with a certain style. They hold not a candle, though, to entertainment with no obvious debt to politics. With the usual failure of an odd, ironic humor in what has come to pass, America continues to focus its attention on the spectacle of who does what to ensure that she gets into Macy’s first for a start to her holiday shopping. No one, evidently, seems able to bring off the relatively straightforward and simple trick of talking to someone who disagrees about the state of today’s affairs in a reasonably calm tone of voice. It is sad and somehow even demeaning to see that the left has been easily as guilty as the right in bringing about the present dire state of affairs. Meanwhile, the oligarchs get ever-more swinish and smug and the entire sulphurous mess breaks unsurprisingly down and the world becomes darker and more noisome, day-by-day.
The absolute most bitter and pustulant upshot of all this is the alarming cognitive dissonance it triggers. If the scientists and the serious journalists are right, we live in truly apocalyptic times. Human society as we have come to understand it will cease to exist in anything like its present form within, at most, three or possibly four generations. After that, all is likely to look pretty primitive and pretty basic for all but a very few. To be sure, the scientists and the journalists may somehow be wrong — they may all be lying or on the take or otherwise in thrall to the photovoltaic industry, but such is not likely. God may indeed save us, but such intervention seems equally unlikely (and surely undeserved). The slow dance of the planets may somehow ensure our coming through, but it seems a dim (so to speak) chance which should at the very least serve to reset the bar for narcissism for the rest of eternity for anyone listening.
Our political system, evolved over time and occasionally even one of humankind’s crowning achievements, is clearly no longer up to the task of making things better in the present moment for any but the very, very rich; indeed, nowhere are political systems proving much more than minimally useful even in pretending to slow what approaches. Messianic leaders seem likely. Even here, in this land of the free and the home of the brave, some sort of benign dictatorship increasingly seems the only model capable of dealing with what’s looming in the requisite and ever-shortening lifetime or so which seems left before it’s truly too late.
Whatever the next few decades hold for us, the near future seems likely to end what we used to mean by ‘democracy’; to cite simply one example out of many, to a degree that would surely have appalled any of the founding fathers, the plutocrats increasingly possess an increasing proportion of all the money. The logical end of all this is that, eventually, one person somewhere will end up with all the money; there will be none left over for everybody else. Who then will buy all the crap he (or she) has left to sell? This seems dire, as Americans and our ilk everywhere seem unlikely to move toward any real change at all so long as the malls remain stuffed and the price of gas stays at least minimally plausible. When such is no longer the case, there is no predicting what sort of nasty revolution(s) may ensue. Perhaps most ironically of all, it is finally like being stoned, finding ourselves deeply embedded and, nightmarishly, unable to move. This is nothing like what we meant.