Kissinger vs. Kerry
The American left is understandably in a state of paralysis. We are torn, and deeply torn, by the question of whether it is necessary and right to vote for the Nixonian candidate offered us by the Democratic National Convention in the hopes that he will free us from the hands of Napoleon IV. Friends have become enemies, allies have declared war, and old cohorts take every opportunity to publicly slam those with whom they once shared peyote buttons. While many of these relationships will (probably) be mended when we face the first sociopolitical disaster of 2005 that (hopefully) Kerry offers us, we're accomplishing very little in the meantime but turning red in the face. The stakes are truly high, though, and in most cases, it's easy to forgive the way passions are running amok.
In most cases, that is. Here in El Paso, the argument is irrelevant and the fighting is needless. El Paso is the only Texan city of any size on Mountain Time (-7GMT). The vast majority of Texas is on Central Time (-6GMT). In the US, polls are open from 7am to 7pm, local time. So all El Pasoans have to do is arrange our day so that we can vote late. Well before our polls close, we will know with absolute certainty if it is possible for Kerry to carry Texas in the Electoral College. If it is possible, we can close our eyes and think of Iraq, and if it's not possible, we can, without guilt, vote for Ralph Nader, David Cobb, or Kinky Friedman if we so desire. Once again, the people of the Northern Pass are fighting with one another over someone else's problem.
One week ago, I returned to Texas after a month's journeying, and immediately found that the atmosphere in the left was too charged for my surly self to be useful. I have dedicated myself to research, for the time being. At the downtown library, I began my round of studies with Plato's Republic, Good as Gold by Joseph Heller, and a smarmy-looking how-to guide on winning local elections. For reasons that could not have been logical, I began with Good as Gold, and seriously considered a voluntary hospital stay in the hopes they would offer me enough thorazine to take the edge off. By a great effort of will, I managed to simply stare at the walls and occasionally masturbate for two days.
At the end of the second day, I tried to settle myself with the company of a friend and a copy of Pleasantville. A truly remarkable film in many ways and for many reasons, Pleasantville is the story of two contemporary teens who get sucked into the monochromic world of an amazingly cheesy 50s sit-com, where they teach the residents to overcome their fears of the future, eat bright red apples and luscious blue berries, and fuck like rabbits in a meth lab. Pleasantville opens with shots of teachers explaining to contemporary high school students how hopeless their lives will be, and ends with an insanely optimistic thesis: the antiquated values that conservatives fight for are pleasant, but the chaos and uncertainty of the modern world is even more pleasant. The past was good, and the future will be better. Once we embrace high emotionalism, the joy open to us is immeasurable.
Peppered with nods to 50s counterculture, Pleasantville celebrates the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, and even, to a conservative degree, the feminist movement - the female actors are even given roles that, while poorly written, are not nearly as embarrassing as those from movies of decades past. Unlike the tepid show in which it is set, Pleasantville truly is situation-based comedy, a concept that, if prime time television is to be considered, many American audiences have long been seeking. Add the awe-inspiring cinematography and the film's uncanny ability to blend pop-savvy irony with unrepentant melodrama, and this film could suspend anyone's disbelief in a reason to live.
Before the movie began, I explored the DVD's features, and found a music video by Fiona Apple, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson for some reason. I clicked it, and listened to the mellow opening strains of 'Across the Universe', accompanied by a reworking of one of the film's many intense scenes, in which a black-and-white mob smashes an exquisitely colored glass mural, then charges into the fountain shop that held it, intent on destroying everything that belonged to the man who could create such beauty. As the mob rages past the shattered mural and into the shop, we see Fiona Apple, singing to us from behind headphones and a hopelessly glazed expression, with a face so rail-thin that one could only pray, for her sake, that she's a junkie: anyone who achieved that thin a face by self-starvation isn't long for this world. As the video attempts to make a logical progression through a song that, unlike the movie, isn't supposed to have a concept of time, we see Apple's temper improve, and a smile spread over her sunken cheeks, a sight that nearly caused me to rush out and buy a case of fatty ground beef and ship it to my son. If this video was supposed to add to the DVD's sense of optimism, I must suggest it failed.
Good as Gold narrates the life of Professor Bruce Gold, a contemptible fuckhead of a shonda who is so obsessed with his righteous hatred of Henry Kissinger that he begins to emulate the war criminal's life. The book begins with a study of Gold's deteriorating liberal morals: after marching for the rights of blacks and women, he now works hard to send his daughter, whom he despises, to a white private school. Although he is head of an unnamed English Department, his time is spent finagling book contracts, so his on-campus work primarily consists of changing his department's description so that more students and money fall under his domain, while at the same time trying to eject any student foolish enough to take one of Gold's own courses. He keeps his dumpy wife for the purpose of cheating on her, and cheats on her with the tallest, youngest goyim he can find. Gold, by the definitions of Pleasantville and Heller's more chaotic value system, has become conservative. He fears the future, and would do anything to conserve his nostalgia for a past that mistreated him. Still, he lives in a more realistic world than Pleasantville, and does not try to actually stop the future. Recognizing that change is inevitable, he commits himself to venality and cynicism. Convinced that Henry Kissinger is not a Jew, that no Jew could ever become that monstrous, he seeks to become the first Jewish Secretary of State, showing us, play by play, how a Jew becomes that monstrous. Between emotionally battering women and sucking the assholes of wealthy anti-Semites, he pens articles like "We Are Not a Society or We Are Not Worth Our Salt," and the especially revealing "Every Change Is for the Worse."
In the United States of 2004, political terms have become poorly defined. Most Americans don't seem to be aware that the Teddy Roosevelt arm of the Republican party was known as "Progressive" and, like the Republican Party of today, suggested radical changes to established policies. More recently, the word conservative has changed. To be "conservative" once meant, as it means in the worlds of Pleasantville and Good as Gold, that one seeks to maintain current values and resist the pressures of the outside world. Today, to be "conservative" means that you vote Republican, which means that you're in favor of altering the American republic as much as necessary to cause more Arabian deaths. (A few language-savvy warmongers have renamed themselves "neocons," which I find very helpful. Since "neocons" is obviously a marketing non-word, it throws into sharper relief the fact that anyone using the term about themselves should be treated like a plague rat.)
But let's stick with Gold's definition of conservatism. Gold's particularly Jewish self-hatred made me uncomfortable, since it was so familiar. But he did the most damage to my psyche not with his murky need for assimilation, but his absolute lucidity regarding the nature of progress. Gold knew, from experience that every activist can relate to, that there is no concept or project so noble that it cannot be corrupted by selfishness. We know that every political change happens because people are suffering badly enough that they are willing to try something new. But most humans know something that activists often won't admit: almost every change is for the worse. We know that most people have to try very hard not to be selfish, and many people don't bother to try. It is sane and natural for people to fear new political orders, given the sort of humans that must institute these new orders.
In Pleasantville, the conservative mayor is afraid of exceedingly bright colors, water that falls from the sky, and the sort of free love that can erupt in television characters incapable of pregnancy or aging. Bruce Gold is afraid of blacks, latinos, and women who are unafraid of him. Although I do not share those specific fears, I felt very in touch with conservatism as I watched Fiona Apple's half-dead face. We start with free love and good drugs, and wind up with junkie sex symbols. We try to stamp out racism, and wind up with political correctness. We try to build a more democratic state government, and end up with Governor Schwarzenegger. We try to free up the use of "forbidden" words in serious literature, and wind up with authors who believe they have to insert their onanistic habits into the third paragraphs of their cultural analyses. Surely it is better to reject the future than subject ourselves to the failure of our every effort. Surely it is more righteous to combat progress than to allow it to be shanghaied by the selfishness of progressives.
Unfortunately, though progressive politics are dangerous, conservative politics are simply laughable. The Republican Party got its "conservative" label by objecting to the economic theories of the 1930s, which eroded capitalism. Capitalism is comatose now, and our attempts to keep it breathing have only resulted in a sort of military-industrial oligarchy which, while not as oppressive as the one in 1984, is founded on the same principles and can only grow more oppressive as time goes on. Conservatism might be justifiable, but it is also impossible. Political change, once begun, cannot be stopped, only shunted into a different (and usually worse) direction. We can conserve the façade of an old morality, perhaps by busting up the republic in the hopes of preventing manlove, but this only allows more the more selfish among us to twist our ethics to their purposes.
As a society, we can choose to be more free or less free, but no modern society can remain inert. Anyone with a sense of history will naturally be frightened by the future, and the political change it necessarily represents. But the past is gone, and the future is all we've got.