By Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash
There are events so shocking, untoward or thrilling, they are bigger than language. Beyond words.
In my lifetime, such events have included the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and Bobby Kennedy, as well as 9/11 and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Being a South African-American, I'd add the 1976 Soweto Uprising and Mandela's release from jail.
What sets these events apart from all others? They scorch the collective cerebellum. They rip away the veil we construct between us and reality to such a degree that, for at least a minute, and sometimes for days, we look straight into the heart of the raw what-is. The realness of the Real upends our world and blows our minds. We find ourselves staring into an approximation of Kant's Ding an sich. Language becomes inadequate. Eloquence cannot meet the moment. The event is too original for any rhetoric to be appropriate. As Adorno famously observed about the greatest crime in history, “Poetry isn't possible after the Holocaust.”
Listen to a mother talking about what happened when she and her husband heard the news that Osama bin Laden was dead. Maureen and Alexander Santora lost their firefighter son on 9/11, and this is from an interview on May 5th at Ground Zero. Mrs. Santora is talking.
“Well, Al was out watching TV and I was on the computer and he yelled out, come out right away, and I came out to the TV and on the bottom was, you know, Osama bin Laden is dead. And then they kept, you know, delaying the President coming out to speak. And we thought initially the President would say, we thought it was him, but it was a mistake. And when he came out and he said he's actually dead, we just sat there for 20 minutes and didn't move. We were just motionless. And then we were just filled with joy. We just were filled with joy. We were just elated at the realization that this had actually happened.”
Zapped by reality for 20 minutes. As if there were too much reality to absorb. And then filled with a wordless joy.
But that's not where it ends. After the merciless intrusion of the real, something happens that robs us of that moment, that wrenches us away from the unmediated experience of the raw what-is, the actual Actual.
That something is language. Inevitably, a consensus language emerges. An official narrative spins the event out of our original grasp — or nongrasp — into the pastiche of consolation or celebration.
It's like a couple ready to claw each other's clothes off, but trapped in a wedding that goes on forever. The wedding is beautiful, but it allows no room for the raw, wet desire that drew them together in the first place.
1. SPINNING THE WORLD
After watching 9/11 unfold from the rooftop of my Lower East Side apartment in New York, I wrote this:
Minutes after the start of the event a consensus of language became available.
“This is the end of irony.”
“The world will never be the same.”
By the afternoon the disaster was promoting itself in clear slogans, logos and images. The confining paradigm we call the world was well on its way to being spun. Gone was the brief moment when ontology had eclipsed epistemology, when there was no language to wrap around what had happened.
The words take over. These narratives, these constructions of language, these verbalizations … they are so effective, and so pervasive, that very few of us even remember our original openness to the-actualness-of-what-happened. We remember how our consciousness was seared, or how an unnameable elation welled up in us, but the overlay of the consensus language muddies our original feelings, and shifts them from the hardcore of reality to the softcore of language, into the consoling simulacra of interpretation.
2. THE BANALITY OF POLITICAL CALCULATION
The killing of Osama bin Laden is very interesting in that its announcement came pre-packaged in a speech by our President, which was pitched to perform the job required of official language in these circumstances: to frame the event in the very specific terms that the President and his advisers wanted us to regard this event.
This is what happened, America, and this is how you should think about it, because in this moment, we are all Americans, who should all think the same thoughts about what your government and your military have done, OK?
So let it be spoken, so let it be felt.
Supreme among the official thoughts required from the citizenry by Obama's speech was this: that the killing be regarded as exemplary of the greatness of our nation.
Besides this stroking of our collective ego, there was also a political calculation: the implication that our President himself is a supreme exemplar of the greatness of our nation. We should all vote for him in 2012 because of what happened.
Then there was the inevitable application of bathos to the national psyche: we suffered, it was the worst attack, we're relentless, etc. All national psyches crave bathos, and none more than ours. We do hysteria with professional aplomb; we're a nation of wet-eyed folks; no dry eye for us; in fact, we often wish Obama did a tad more drama. But he does, people, he does. He lays on the bathos as expertly as anyone else, even if his affect is not over-the-top. He knows there's no way any politician can succeed in America if he or she cannot ladle out the bathos in Grand Canyon-sized soup spoons.
For example, it's utterly incumbent upon all politicians in these United States to put their hands on their hearts and roll their eyes heavenward while they warble a hymn to “our troops.” Never mind that our troops are fine American patriots who want to serve — but who are artfully patted into pawns sent forth to kill foreigners and get killed or mutilated by them in faraway lands for surreal reasons that our politicians fashion out of their banal political language. “Enduring freedom.” “National security.” “The war on terror.” “Domino theory.” “Manifest destiny.” Obama, just like Bush, can stand there with a straight face and say the toughest part of his job is when he has to sign a letter to a family informing them that someone they love is dead, to which the natural riposte is: BRING THEM HOME, DUMMY. A majority of Americans want you to end these wars we can't afford, dope.
The only good modern war we ever fought was WW2, and in Europe it was won by the Russians, who sacrificed over 20 million citizens to our less than half a million, and in Japan it was won by us, when we dropped not one but two atom bombs on them. And afterwards we did the best thing we ever did, which was to put both Germany and Japan back on the road to prosperity.
Since then our war record has been as spotty as the BS spritzed about Obama by Donald Trump out of that tiny pig's-ass mouth of his.
3. LET'S MYTHOLOGIZE
However, to quote Obama, let me be clear: I can mythologize Seal Team Six, the guys who took out Osama bin There No More, as much as anybody. I'm a guy, and for me Seal Team Six represents the pinnacle of guyness. We lumpen guys wish we had the Seal Team Six brand of fitness, stamina, physique, muscles, brain power and reflexes. Paul Rieckhoff, a burly military pal of progressive TV host Rachel Maddow, and himself a physical specimen you wouldn't want to mess with, said on her show that he's seen these guys train, and in his words, they're “almost superhuman”; more physically adept than the best athletes, and smart as all heck, with masters degrees from top colleges. From their hundreds of missions, Seal Team Six guys have gained the tactical muscle memory to decide in under a second whether you're friend or foe, and if you're a foe, they'll pop you, and if you're a friend, they'll protect you.
So yes, like every red-blooded American, I can't help but feel proud of them. They did their job. Mission effing accomplished. Bin Laden sleeps with the fishes. But am I proud of my adopted country, or my president? Not so fast, Geronimo.
Bear with me as I marshal my rhetoric. Of course you're free to decide it's as banal as any other language.
4. UP ON THE ROOF
I had a number of reactions to 9/11, and they all inform what I feel about the death of Bin Laden.
My very first reaction to 9/11, as I watched from the rooftop of my apartment block a mile or two away, was awe and pain. I experienced a weird guilty thrill at the audacity of the act, and a squashed heart at the thought of the people on the floors from which the smoke of burning planes was billowing. With me was a photographer with a bad-ass camera — a phallic symbol more phallic than symbol. Every three minutes, between his whirs and clicks, he said: “I can't believe it!” All I said was, “I'm sure they can fix it, the damage doesn't look too bad.”
Then we went downstairs to a friend of his to hear what the TV people were saying (“a Hollywood disaster movie”), and later back on the roof, with some dust clouds clearing, we saw blue sky where one of the buildings had stood. So we went back to the TV to find out what had happened, and saw the second building fall. We saw it on TV as an image, and we saw it out of the window for real: the two visuals side by side. This was as surreal as dark smoke wafting up from Soweto in 1976, which I watched from a privileged perch on the top floor of the highest building in Johannesburg.
At some point after this extremo freako calamito building collapse — an erection of concrete shrinking superfast in concertina-fashion to a zero default setting — I made a silly joke: “Well, we know it can't be the Basques.” Then I shared these two reactions with the four strangers who'd become my instant friends:
(a) My city had been attacked, and we should invade Afghanistan, kill Bin Laden — I was pretty sure he was behind it — and put the women of Afghanistan in charge of their country (my heart talking).
(b) America had it coming, given our murderously stinky foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere (my head talking: I'd been well and truly Chomsky-fied; however, I learned quickly not to raise this topic at parties).
Also, I struggled with my liberal opposition to the death sentence. I had a daydream in which I sat down with a handcuffed Osama bin Laden on a mountaintop in Afghanistan and talked for a bit. He quoted Abdullah Yusuf Azzam and I quoted Camus, and we drank non-alcoholic beer. Then I attached a time bomb to his belt and walked away, not even looking back when the bomb went off.
The end of irony, all right.
Later, when it looked like we'd invade Afghanistan, I joined a protest march against it. A friend told me that an LA therapist had arrived to help New Yorkers in their hour of need, and that my friend joined this circle of New Yorkers, sniffing aromatic crystals and holding hands and incantating to the goddess and whatnot. Only one New York woman said she didn't need this LA crap and checked out of the circle. I related.
5. THE WET-EYED AND THE DRY-EYED
I didn't have a TV then, because I was writing the great American satire (All the People You Can Eat, unpublished) and TV was a distraction. So I got a big shock when I finally saw some TV at a friend's house, a week into the war. The shock was not because of the banal war drumbeat, but because of the banal fake, TV-bright tone from anchor people, pundits, politicians and performers alike, interrupted by one exception: a few gritty lines from the only guy who sounded real in the pervasive kitsch: Rudy Giuliani.
Perhaps the height of kitsch in those days was Bette Midler belting out The Wind Beneath My Wings at a stadium concert; its nifty bathos made me weep like a fire hydrant. Some days later I saw Ingmar Bergman's The Silence, as dry-eyed as high art can get, and was deeply stirred in another way.
Pop culture and high art; the bathetic and the austere; the wet-eyed and the dry-eyed: some of us are slaves to both. I likes me some Abba and some Stockhausen, some Stieg Larsson and some Cormac McCarthy.
In the aftermath of 9/11, kitsch became a patriotic duty. And rightly so: it brings us together. Yet there's something creepy about how this works. The killing of Bin Laden, for example, demands that we consume a whole miasma of banality around the stark fact that a Navy Seal shot America's #1 enemy above the left eye (was it twice? or once in the head, once in the chest? by week's end, the fog-of-war excuse for the shape-shifting narratives became rather wind-blown).
The creators of TV News banalities have long acted like mini-Spielbergs. If only they could use his kitsch-driven action-spectaculars as models. Instead, their efforts come off as spawn from his “serious” films — The Color Purple, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List. These movies pump out their sentimental kitsch in mawkish sincerity, instead of lacing it with the irony and gusto of his fun movies.
What a chance to ooze sincerity our TVbots got in the Dead Bin Laden Reality Show! Most TV people looked like they'd had creme brulee for breakfast as they cast the clunky pearls of their banalities in front of the eager snouts of we, the complicit swine.
Gadzooks and forsooth, 'twas “serious” Spielberg laid on thick. Cliffhangers: will they release the photo? Character analysis: what do you think of Pakistan? POV: what did KSM say or not say when he was waterboarded or not waterboarded about the courier known only by his nickname or not? Mystery: what was the National Security team looking at when Hillary covered her mouth with her hand? Revelation: old man Osama watches his former self on TV. Telling Detail: his McMansion was eight times bigger, EIGHT TIMES BIGGER than a mastodon's woody in lunar gravity … etcetera, ad nauseam.
We all make a bargain with TV — to enjoy its shallowness despite our smarts, because some of the crap we like doesn't smell as bad as most of the crap we don't. Plus we're trained by a lifetime of viewing to bring our own irony to the party. The killing of Osama bin Laden suspended that bargain; it wanted us to swallow the corn-driven bandwagon whole. We have to stand united in kitsch.
6. SONTAG, SPIELBERG, BERGMAN
Which is maybe why I'm writing this. Trying to cast a little cold water on all these hot-out-of-the-oven banalities. Is this contrarian chilliness necessary? Is it kind? Who knows. But I remember well Ms. Susan Sontag's written reaction to 9/11 in The New Yorker. She wasn't wet-eyed and bathetic like the rest of us. She dared to have a dry eye:
“The disconnect between last Tuesday's monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public … Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy — which entails disagreement, which promotes candor — has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together.”
Ms. Sontag was accused of everything from being un-American to being callous towards the victims. What really enraged folks was her refusal to be wet-eyed. Everyone else was in a “serious” movie by Spielberg, and she was watching Bergman.
7. THOSE WHO WANT CONSOLATION FROM ART DON'T WANT ART
When I saw Bergman's The Silence in those days after 9/11, it was introduced by Ms. Sontag. She set up the movie with a talk about the tough bleakness of the Swedish literary tradition. She mentioned Strindberg and told us the plot of a Swedish novella written in 1905.
The main character in this novella is a young doctor. He's in love with a young woman, who's married to a man twice her age. The doctor's love for the young woman is one of those sad, unexpressed Chekov things. The young woman tells the young doctor that her repulsive husband is sexually demanding. She’s very unhappy, because she’s in love with another man her own age. The young doctor, who has the old husband as a patient, murders the old man with medication. Now the young woman is free to marry her young paramour.
Ms. Sontag told us that such a novel could never have been written in English in 1905, unless the doctor went to jail or committed suicide. The Swedish story ends with the murder undiscovered and the murderer burdened by two feelings: the satisfaction of having made his beloved happy, and the frustration of not having her for himself.
After the Bergman movie was over, Ms. Sontag told me that this tough little tale is a perennial school classic in Sweden, frequently given to children to read.
Compared to this aesthetic, our Anglo-American insistence on the consoling, healing, and moralizing function of art seems self-indulgent. Why can't we be as tough and dry-eyed as the Swedes? Why are we, artistically speaking, such wuzzes? Does our wet-eyed wuzziness lower the level of our political discourse? Is that why we prefer banalities to an alternative that may get us closer to the truth?
If there is one artist I'd like around today, it's Bertold Brecht. Imagine a song by him and Kurt Weill about the death of Bin Laden — a sort of Mack the Knife Part Two.
But enough about art. Let's dive back into the crapper: politics.
8. COMPETING BANALITIES
When Obama made his speech, with the inevitable bathetic appeal to our suffering, our resilience, our resolve and our patriotism, a similar but competing political calculation was expressed by Obama's opponents. I switched from my MSNBC semi-progressive pundits to check up briefly on Fox News, where I saw an assembly-line specimen of the female persuasion announce the killing. Her commentary was accompanied by a clip of Bush at Ground Zero in 2001, and another clip of Bush saying he doesn't care whether they get Bin Laden dead or alive, they'll get him. Then a quote was thrown up on the screen about the Bin Laden killing — from Bush. In the eternal-big-lie bizarro world of Fox News, it was an accomplishment by Bush. President Obama did not exist. He was erased from his own moment. Goebbels himself would have applauded.
The cosmic joke is that Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld let Bin Laden get away at Tora Bora (Rumsfeld, wuz that he was, thought injecting more troops there would be too risky). Then, five months later, Bush publicly gave up on the search for Bin Laden when he said on camera that he didn't know where Bin Laden was, and that “I am truly not that concerned about him.” And then Bush-Cheney invaded Iraq with the cockamanie notion of installing Ahmed Chalabi as their puppet, so Chalabi could sign over the country's oil to Bush-Cheney's oil buddies and be a neocon outpost of the U.S. empire against all the other states there. The administration settled on what Wolfowitz called the “bureaucratic” reason for the invasion, i.e. the easy sell: the lie that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction (whatever the heck that might include besides my Aunt Mabel's rolling pin; but it does sound too-too beautifully vague and scary, doesn't it?).
Both Hillary Clinton and The New York Times swallowed this banality. Poor Hillary's political calculation cost her the presidency. The New York Times folks blotted their copybook forevermore: not because they got their facts wrong, but because they were so howlingly stupid. Plenty people saw the lies for what they were — even I did, and I don't live in Washington. The lying was so obvious that when I read the article by Joseph Wilson in The New York Times that exposed one particular lie and led to his wife Valerie Plame being outed as a spy, I wondered why the Times was providing op-ed space for the regurgitation of such stale news.
In 2005 Bush disbanded Alec Station, the CIA intelligence unit whose decade-long mission was to hunt Bin Laden and his top lieutenants.
So much for Bush-Cheney's efforts to nail Bill Laden.
There's more. Remember how the media banged on about Bush's “moral clarity”? This was their banal excuse for the fact that, morally speaking, Bush was thicker than a brick. (Which reminds me of the story of Prince Charles telling Princess Di to mind her head as they walked through a low doorway, and Di replying: “What does it matter? According to you, I've got a plank in my head.”)
The Bush-Cheney consensus espoused the creepy banality that some crazy people hit us because they hated our freedoms. Bin Laden mocked this conceit when he asked: so why didn't I attack Sweden instead? But that hasn't stopped this BS from pervading our consciousnesses from sea to shining sea.
Truth be told, our culture is steeped in idiosyncratic banalities that are rather isolationist. The world knows more about America than Americans know about the world. Do we still remember that the overseas protests against the Iraq War were the biggest in human history? An Irish actress told me in the first month after 9/11 that her friends in Europe were far more scared of Bush than they were of Bin Laden.
Let's face it, Osama bin Laden got lucky. He hit us when our administration was populated by the most dysfunctional morons since the regimes of Caligula, who appointed his horse as a Senator, and Nero, who fiddled while Rome was burning. The Bush-Cheney regime turned out to be a more effective recruiter for Al Qaeda than Bin Laden himself, and fulfilled Bin Laden's mission of bankrupting our nation financially and morally as if they were sitting in his various hide-outs taking notes from him.
As for Americans, we happily went along with our government being suckered by one Muslim dude with a scruffy beard and a good line in florid Arabic. One guy. ONE GUY. How stupid can we get? I can't think of a single animal on the food chain that's this stupid. I once saw a chicken swallow a snake, and maybe we're as stupid as that snake.
While Bush-Cheney worked hard at expanding Bin Laden's influence all over the globe, and at spending our country into a crippling deficit, they marshaled a language of banality that bamboozled enough of us Americans for them to turn their voters' loss of 2000 into a majority in 2004. London's Daily Mirror ran this headline: “How can 59,054,087 people be so dumb?”
This election was won by Bush-Cheney despite the scandal of Abu Ghraib. We were torturing, raping, sodomizing, murdering and humiliating the enemy — and sometimes they were innocent. This was Bush-Cheney's most masterful recruitment tool for Al Qaeda. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Bush and Cheney deserve the Al Qaeda Recruitment Gold Medal for Effort Beyond the Call of Duty. Especially when they prosecuted low-level grunts and did nothing about the generals who bore the responsibility. Brilliant.
There are people who wonder: what did Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld feel in their hearts about this brilliant tactic, and why are Fox News and Cheney (“we have to work the dark side”) still defending torture, or what they call in a very pretty example of banal language, “enhanced interrogation”? Enhanced: there's something positively angelic about the word.
9. WHY BUSH-CHENEY OVER-REACTED
I don't think torture happened simply because Cheney and Fox News are morally deficient (which they are), or because they're succubi from hell, or in Cheney's case, deeply into shooting helpless ducks for sport. Or because they traffic in the bravado of machismo. Or because Cheney and the neocon cabal are trying to make up for the fact that they're chicken hawks, whose connections got them deferments so they didn't have to go fight in Vietnam.
There's a more basic reason, methinks. When 9/11 happened, after Bush-Cheney-Rice-Rumsfeld ignored repeated warnings that an attack was coming, Bush-Cheney-Rice-Rumsfeld pooped themselves. There they were, more or less running the world, and suddenly they were overwhelmed. Imagine 9/11 happening on your watch — what would you do? You'd poop yourself. But after a few days, or a few weeks, or a few months, sanity would prevail. Not with these guys. They pooped themselves on a permanent basis. Since the banal language of their entire political lives was built on fear-mongering, they now had a concrete reason to succumb to their darkest fears. And boy, did they succumb. Our multi-billion security apparatus of hundreds of agencies giving soft jobs to tens of thousands of bureaucrats and employing hundreds of outside contractors … that's proof enough. Call it GOP big-government security welfare. As for Cheney and his posse, what can one say? Aargh. To this day, Cheney's butt cheeks are snapping open-and-shut like crazy in cold fear, as if every morning he just missed being gored by a Godzilla-Mr. Hyde recombitant. His neocon pals and daughter remain mired in hysteria, still turning out the scared-stupid wuzmeister lines, in a continuing over-reaction second only to Nicolas Cage's freak-out in Leaving Las Vegas.
The fact is that, instead of being run by standard operational GOP neocon bullies, America was suddenly run by totally spooked GOP neocon bullies. And one of them, Karl Rove, knew how to spook the entire nation into becoming spooked bullies.
Neocon banality led to the bizarre tragicomedy of Paul Bremer, the Poobah of Iraq, weaving a many-splendored tissue of laws inside the safety of the Green Zone to create a corporation-friendly paradise (corporate taxes of 15%) — laws that had no connection to reality, and no chance in a million of being tolerated by anyone in Iraq. It led Bremer to fire Iraq's bureaucracy and military — ensuring an ungovernable Iraq and an insurrection — and to rig a staggered election, which slipped away from his neocon fingers when a recalcitrant cleric called on the Iraqis to march for a one-time-everybody-votes election. Bush-Cheney-Bremer fumed in silence as their dream of a Chalabi-puppet neocon corporate nirvana morphed into the smithereens of a hapless crash test dummy going mano-a-diablo with the hard wall of reality.
10. MY BIG NOSE
Like the Energizer Bunny, the banal language of the GOP buzzes on. Today we've got Tea Party craziness. We've got birthers: a discomfort with our President's ethnicity so chronic, by gum, he must've been born in Kenya. Or Hades. The closest language I know to this curious dialect is the language I grew up with: the banal language of South Africa's apartheid regime, which had these distinctive features:
(a) It blamed everything bad on communism and terrorists.
(b) It based its discrimination against black people on quotes from the Bible.
(c) It said that black people weren't adult enough to look after themselves, which made it the duty of the white man to guide them out of their backwardness.
In other words, a lot of Jesse Helms and a little of Pat Robertson.
My late Jewish ex-wife used to say with a chuckle and a smirk that the reason Jews like her had big noses was so they could smell trouble first. I've got a pretty pronounced proboscis myself, and when Reagan became president, I smelled a rat bigger than the Ritz. He sounded exactly like a South African apartheid politician. Looking at the hellhole our country has gotten itself into post-Reagan and post-Bush-Cheney, my nose was right (along with every progressive nose in the nation). Our long-suffering republic is looking at a minimum of fifteen years to reverse-rappel itself out of the GOP-built abyss. That's if we do everything right, and here's the bad news: we're not doing much right at all, even under the smartest President we've had since Jefferson. Here's what's really disconcerting about Obama: he reads Stiglitz, but he appoints two poodles-for-Wall Street on his economic team. In other words, he was aware of the alternative. My nose failed me miserably during Obama's campaign — duped, duped, double duped — only to come alive when Obama chose Summers and Geithner to rescue our economy, at which point every molecule in my nasal passages started bristling worse than the quills on a porcupine threatened by a breakfast-deprived puff adder.
11. I PANDER THEREFORE I AM
While we're at it, let's entertain a real downer. What if rising gas prices make Mitt Romney our president in 2012? The fact that this is a distinct possibility says something about the stupidity of white people in America, and the effectiveness of the language that bamboozles them. All you have to do is rattle off some BS about how great America is, aim a few FUs at foreigners, have good hair or a weird comb-over, shoot a few ducks and clear away brush, and a majority of the white people of America will vote for you even as you and your cronies rob them blind.
An idiot like Paul Ryan actually believes that his plan of robbing seniors to give tax cuts to the rich will help make America great. And our media morons construe his stupidity as courage. They told us this imbecile occasioned an adult conversation. If Paul Ryan is an adult, then my ten-year-old nephew is Methusaleh. And if the Beltway stenographers, er, media, are having an adult conversation with us, then my lobbed-off foreskin is more adult than Nelson Mandela.
How is it that the agenda of Washington can be framed by a wacko like Paul Ryan, who a few years ago couldn't gather more than four other Congress folks to back his moonbat ravings? Let's face it, my fellow Americans: the banality of GOP language has debased all political, cultural and religious discourse in the land, and though it can soar in a speech by Obama — at his best, he can fling banalities pretty close to a semblance of poetic truth — it more commonly paddles no higher than the remains of a dead frog rotting at the bottom of a cesspool choked by strontium-90-enriched pond scum.
Washington speech generates concerns that have nothing to do with what is, or with what the citizens of this nation need or want. Today Washington is having a debate about cutting the deficit, something that troubles rich people, while the majority of Americans, who aren't rich, are worried about jobs. Our ruling elite isn't listening to us (have they ever?). They're comfortably ensconced in the banality of their own rhetoric. Like the Irish immigrants of yesteryear, if our regular-folks kitchen-table language wanted a job in Washington, it need not apply. It's shut out by an elite-appropriate argot of supreme banality invented by economist Milton Friedman (whose fundamentalist ideology got him a Nobel Prize, as undeserved as Pearl Buck's).
When President Obama spouted the banality that we don't think of Bin Laden as a trophy because “that's not who we are”, I wanted to laugh. “Who we are” can be plainly seen in the Abu Ghraib photographs, and seen and heard on Fox News every day, where various pundits and ex-Bushies are still defending torture. Obama lauds the inherent decency of the American people, conveniently omitting the fact that almost 30% of us believe in the Rapture, in which everyone on earth except the few true believers will go up in body-melting flames. Yes, millions of your fellow voters condemn humankind to a painful death-by-brimstone: a religion of raging psychopaths. Then there's the GOP, which enhances the threat of terrorism and Mexican immigrants and gays to the point that their dupes believe they're in imminent danger of having their bodies incinerated, their jobs stolen, and their children buggered before next week Monday. That's the banality of political language, informed by myopia and hysteria.
12. AN AFFRONT TO SHAKESPEARE
The banal consensus language used by our media on behalf of our elite also tells us that we're a democracy — when we're a plutocracy hiding in plain sight. This ridiculously extravagant banality about “democracy” is an affront to the language of Shakespeare, George Eliot, William Faulkner, and J.M. Coetzee. If the day comes that a clear majority of Americans spend five minutes a day puking over the banality of our language, we might have a country to feel proud of.
For example: I'm not proud of those college students who gathered at the White House when the death of Bin Laden was announced, and chanted “USA! USA! USA!” in magnificently joyful togetherness. Rachel Maddow and Professor Jonathan Haidt and Amanda Marcotte were proud, but I wasn't. I understand why the kids did it: they were in high school when 9/11 happened, and this is the arc of their entire lives. But their response lacked, well, grace — something their parents and teachers may have neglected to teach them. Taken to its logical extreme, this sort of behavior ends up in the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, or in the actions of American soldiers who cut off the ears of dead Vietnamese to string them on bad-ass necklaces as ghoulish evidence of their 100% commitment to war.
You think I overstate my case? Listen. Here's what America cannot face, and never will face: with our war of aggression against Iraq, under the guidance of Bush-Cheney and the neo-cons, we did more than flirt with evil. We committed evil. Among the more than 100,000 Iraqi civilian casualties were many women and children. We killed more innocent people than Osama bin Laden ever did. Calling these corpses collateral damage is a hideous misuse of English. Hiding behind that particular banality of language is a shirking of moral responsibility worse than Wall Street banksters who take their bonuses and dump the costs on teachers, cops, and Navy Seals. Collateral damage is an official euphemism for a scorched child lying in the dust with her legs blown away, bleeding to death as she cries for her dead parents before the blood in her mouth silences her screams. That's what we do. That's who we are, Mr. President.
Not facing up to that responsibility is moral cowardice beyond the confines of language. Years from now, historians will look back on this war, and our evil will be examined and judged. Meanwhile, America and Americans, go ahead, make my day, and choke on a little phrase from my brilliant girlfriend that she taunted me with last week: stay swaddled in your arrogance and denial.
Our refusal to face the truth is a refusal to grow up. Our banal wish to wrap ourselves in a security blanket of banal language won't keep us warm. There's work to be done, folks. There's truth to be spoken, not only to power but to ourselves. Let's hope we can, as Americans, become a little less arrogant, and maybe move out of our denial sometime before the year 3011.