“The legionnaires’ interests, and those of the increasingly important women’s auxiliary, lie in the bands and the parades and the junior baseball teams and in the comfortable feeling of belonging so necessary to people now that small-town life is broken up and the family is crumbling and people live so much by themselves in agglomerated industrial masses, where they are left after working hours with no human contact between the radio and the car and the impersonal round of chain stores and picture palaces.” – John Dos Passos – “Big Parade – 1936” published in The Nation
“The system is an implacable machine which one might call the objective spirit of the United States and which over there they call Americanism – a huge complex of myths, values, recipes, slogans, figures, and rites. It is something outside of the people, something presented to them; the most adroit propaganda does nothing else but present it to them continuously. It is not in them, they are in it; they struggle against it or they accept it, they submit to it or reinvent it, they give themselves up to it or make furious attempts to escape from it; in any case it remains outside them, transcendent, because they are men and it is a thing…Perhaps nowhere else will you find such a discrepancy between people and myth, between life and the representation of life.” – Jean Paul Sartre – “Americans and Their Myths” The Nation 1947
“When our fears have all been serialized, our creativity censured, our ideas “marketplaced,” our rights sold, our intelligence sloganized, our strength downsized, our privacy auctioned; when the theatricality, the entertainment value, the marketing life is complete, we will find ourselves living not in a nation but in a consortium of industries, and wholly unintelligible to ourselves except for what we see as through a screen darkly.” – Toni Morrison, “Racism and Fascism” The Nation 1995
* * * *
And here we are.
I’ve been reading through the 150th Anniversary edition of The Nation, America’s oldest continuously published journal of progressive thought, and picked these quotes, separated by decades, to represent my perception of the landscape in which I currently wander. Between 1936 and 1995 and today nothing about America has much changed other than perhaps the fluctuating mood of a populace that varies between extremes of idealism and anger, sympathy and prejudice.
After 250 years we haven’t learned the lessons of intolerance and bigotry. Our politics are driven by fear and anger. The young mostly pass out of their brief fantasy of living in a land of possibilities into one or another state of confinement. Most of the faces I see on the street are haunted by scarcely hidden shadows of desperation when they aren’t caught up in some form of distraction.
When I look at our current political crisis and our inability to deal with the looming problems immediately before us I see their reflection in the words of I.F. Stone, written in 1944, pleading for some action to save the victims of the European Holocaust: “Official Washington’s capacity for finding excuses for inaction is endless, and many people in the State and War departments who play a part in this matter can spend months sucking their legalistic thumbs over any problem. So many things that might have been done were attempted too late.”
Climate change, deteriorating infrastructure, war; wherever one looks the collective imperatives are overridden by self-interested sloganeering waged on behalf of an illusion of ‘individual freedom’ thinly disguising a superstructure of greed and paranoia.
A friend of mine scolded me recently, telling me to stop ‘whining’ and take advantage of the fact that I live in a state where marijuana is legal. I should relax, enjoy myself, watch a Broncos game and stop focusing on all of this darkness and cynicism.
What a fascinating term is ‘cynicism.’ I’ve been accused of it often enough that I’ve had to measure myself frequently against it, to gauge the degree to which I find it applicable. At its basis I suppose is a feeling of discontent, of being always outside of that which is commonly considered expected or predictable. It’s a feeling that has been with me always, as if I made a choice at some point, perhaps before I was ever conscious, to ask the world for something that is never directly forthcoming. The feeling manifests primarily as questions, questions, questions, and rarely an ability to accept fully the answers that are given. But where the attitude of cynicism to me appears stuck within the limitations of the present, an attitude of eternal questioning suggests some sort of faith in alternative possibilities.
I must admit that during the political season my inherent skepticism propels me more deeply toward a somewhat cynical response to the hyper-inflated rhetoric that drives the population into frenzies of unrealistic expectation that rebound against an irrational collective angst. The truth of the matter is that although I’m both a firm believer in a state of continual revolution I’ve grown extremely skeptical that any form of authentic revolution can be gained through politics. The political process may reflect broadly certain trends of popular enlightenment or stupidity, but authentic revolution is a process of cultural change toward which politics at best offers a tardy endorsement.
I am, in fact, a firm believer that human civilization has advanced and will continue to advance in the long run. I suppose that makes me an overall optimist. Particular civilizations come and go, they thrive and then grow decadent and sometimes they entirely collapse, or else they recede like glaciers to be reborn in a later season. Is it unreasonable to think that ours is no exception? Yet, in the grand scheme of things ours is a relatively young society. Although it has spread its influence all across the globe it has yet to fully and conclusively consolidate its power over every human life. It is quite an impressive machine and like every civilization that has gone before it has radically altered the relationship of humans with each other and with the natural world. Perhaps in this regard it has gone much further than those that have gone before, and in a shorter amount of time.
As the Phoenicians brought us the language of trade and the Sumerians the alphabet, Asians brought us paper and the first cities, Africa brought mathematics, the Greeks and Romans brought us roads and the law and the colonial pirates united the hemispheres and gave us a global language of commerce. The current phase of civilization has eliminated the factor of time and space in global human communication.
Humanity has always paid a steep price for every step forward. It may be that due to the breathtaking speed of its advance, the present global society will pay the biggest price of all. Besides the inevitable social disruption that every innovation brings about we are witnessing mass extinctions, vast environmental degradation, countless global wars and the resulting migration of millions of people, and we are only at the beginning stages of what could be a very steep curve of accelerated change. Many will be displaced and many will perish. No nation or state or city or village will be exempt. Our consciousness and our sense of collective ethics will be profoundly challenged, It’s going to be one hell of a ride, no matter who appears to be in charge.
Therefore, in light of all this, to expect that any single politician or leader can turn the thing around is folly. This isn’t cynicism, it’s merely realistic. I’ve lived over half a century to see every political victory shadowed by retreat and reaction, every enlightened advance accompanied by fear and loathing. I find it difficult to put my faith in ‘the people’ for the people inevitably follow the pathways of the expedient, for better or for worse.
My move from a small tourist town to a major megalopolis has made the vast and interwoven complexity of American society starkly clear. We are all caught up in the machineries of commerce whether we like it or not, and those machineries show little signs of slowing down. As crazy as this makes our day-to-day lives we have little choice but to support the collective movement to which we’ve tied our very survival. The source of both my cynicism and my hope is that on the one hand we’ve come to be a civilization that has long since fulfilled the prophecy attributed to Chief Seattle: “The end of living and the beginning of survival,” and on the other hand we continually surprise ourselves by our capacity for changing the way the game is played.
I believe in revolution by design. Just as every civilization has arisen out of an advance in technological innovation linked with spiritual revelation, so has this one and will the next one. We are steadily and collectively gaining a sense of our interrelationship with everything around us. When humans are faced with a problem or a limitation they are compelled to innovate a novel solution. That solution spawns more problems and complexities of unintended consequence and we innovate some more. Our world thus becomes more complex, more populated and our situations more interwoven with the total web of life. We are now the source of the biggest environmental feedback loop, and are now faced with the total responsibility for our own salvation or destruction. Will we be ready in time?
The signs are encouraging to me. When one looks beyond the world of politics and war the rate of change in both cultural advance and design innovation is breathtaking. In virtually every advanced society there are experiments in new ways to build cities and sustainable networks of transportation and communication. In societies where the means and options for communication have increased, despite the inevitable reaction of those who feel culturally threatened by change, the overall tolerance of people for difference and nonconformity appears to grow despite the reactionary efforts of those who see political gain.
The next stage of our social evolution will be shaped in relation to vast environmental disruptions. There is no longer the possibility of turning this around, and our political and social realities will bring us face to face with it sooner than later. The climate will continue to grow warmer. the oceans will rise. The weather will become more extreme. The planet’s ability to sustain the human population will be severely strained. Our cities will have to contract. We will no longer be able to claim the right of unlimited expansion and sprawl. We will have to surrender some of our rights to ‘private’ transportation. More of our lives will be lived underground and we will have to find ways to take collective shelter in an environment that grows increasingly harsh. The containers of our lives will be subject to greater regulation that serves the collective good over individual freedom. At the same time we will be forced to forego activities devoted to mindless tasks performed more efficiently by machines. Above all we will be faced with the necessity of leaving behind the relentless and wasteful demands of a society based purely on unbridled consumption of the resources upon which we all depend.
I don’t suggest that any of this will not be a struggle. The so-called American Dream will have to be sorted between the aspects that support individual initiative and a personal quest for fulfillment and those that emerge from the sloganeering bullshit supporting endless greed and acquisition. Sounds impossible, but many have already made moves in this direction. More and more the resistance to change will be from an aging and dying generation represented by demagogues and fear merchants while the future is constructed by the young people who will have to live in it.
As I see it, the present political struggle in America is between idealists and pragmatists. The idealists are angry at the speed and slowness of what they see as absolutely necessary and long delayed change. Pragmatists are frustrated at the unrealistic expectations of idealists which lead to political marginalization and defeat. All parties are faced with similar struggles. I respect both positions, but lean more toward the latter (a function of age). I tend to evaluate the message of each position by both the message and the tone in which it is delivered. If you are rude and angry on the Left you are as little likely to get my support as your ‘evil’ twin on the Right.
My advice to all is to step back on occasion from the struggles of the moment and to take a longer view. The longer and broader the view the more grounded one is in the ‘real.’ The political present is a result of endless chains of complex cause and effect. To understand the present one must have a sense of the past. Never panic, because the pendulum swings both right and left, and the main danger is loss of patience.
As I look over the skyline of Denver I see the implacable wall of the Rockies rising up at its outskirts. I see the ridiculous congestion and atmospheric haze that’s a result of uncontrolled sprawl as more and more people rush back and forth to shop, to work, to survive. A city of warehouses, suburban shopping centers and housing developments that cover the countryside, this is a city grown beyond it’s own consciousness, like almost every American city. Like a person suffering from a bad diet and overconsumption the clock is ticking while the mountains look on. Sooner or later I believe that, in the words of science fiction writer John Brunner, “the sheep will look up” and begin to get a real handle on their future. In the meantime I’ll proceed along my own path and voice my discontent, and every once and a while my hopes, along with a little bit of humor. When I pass the hopeless and homeless and desperately confused on the streets of America I will never be able to turn my head away and refuse to see.
Finally, Bob Dylan in 1965 described a city that resembles the one I perceive and that hasn’t changed that much since then:
By Bob Dylan – “Desolation Row” – 1965
They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown,
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town.
Here comes the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance,
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants.
And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row
Cinderella, she seems so easy, “It takes one to know one,” she smiles,
And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style.
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning. “You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place, my friend, you better leave.”
And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row.
Now the moon is almost hidden, the stars are beginning to hide,
The fortune telling lady has even taken all her things inside.
All except for Cain and Abel and the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love or else expecting rain.
And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing, he’s getting ready for the show.
He’s going to the carnival tonight on Desolation Row.
Now Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window, for her I feel so afraid.
On her twenty-second birthday she already is an old maid.
To her, death is quite romantic, she wears an iron vest.
Her profession’s her religion, her sin is her lifelessness.
And though her eyes are fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking into Desolation Row.
Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood with his memories in a trunk,
Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk.
He looked so immaculately frightful as he bummed a cigarette
As he went off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet.
Now you would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row.
Dr. Filth, he keeps his world inside of a leather cup,
But all his sexless patients, they’re trying to blow it up.
Now his nurse, some local loser, she’s in charge of the cyanide hole,
And she also keeps the cards that read, “Have Mercy on His Soul.”
They all play on the penny whistles, you can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough from Desolation Row.
Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains, they’re getting ready for the feast,
The Phantom of the Opera a perfect image of a priest.
They’re spoon feeding Casanova to get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence after poisoning him with words.
And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls, “Get Outa Here If You Don’t Know,
Casanova is just being punished for going to Desolation Row.”
Now at midnight all the agents and the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do.
Then they bring them to the factory where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders and then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles by insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping to Desolation Row.
Praise be to Nero’s Neptune the Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting, “Which Side Are You On?”
And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers.
Between the windows of the sea where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much about Desolation row.
Yes, I received your letter yesterday (About the time the doorknob broke).
When you asked me how I was doing, was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they’re quite lame.
I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name.
Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more
Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row
Songwriters: BOB DYLAN
Desolation Row lyrics © BOB DYLAN MUSIC CO