by Eliot Weinberger
Among the things the second term of the Bush junta will bring is the New Freedom Initiative. This is a proposal, barely reported in the press, to give all Americans- beginning with school children- a standardized test for mental illness. Those who flunk the test will be issued medication, and those who do not want to take their medication will be urged to have it implanted under their skin. Needless to say, the New Freedom commission, appointed by the President, is composed almost entirely of executives, lawyers, and lobbyists for pharmaceutical corporations.
The question is: Will anyone pass the test? Half of America is clearly deranged, and it has driven the other half mad.
The President openly declares that God speaks through him. The Republicans are making television advertisements featuring the actor who played Jesus in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," while sending out pamphlets that warn that if Kerry is elected he will ban the Bible. Catholic bishops have decreed that voting for Kerry is a sin (mortal or venial?) that must be confessed before one can take communion. The one piece of scientific research actively promoted by the government is investigating whether having others pray for you can cure cancer. (The National Institute of Health has explained that this is "imperative" because
poor people have limited access to normal health care.) At the official gift shop in Grand Canyon National Park, they sell a book that states that this so-called natural wonder sprang fully formed in the six days of Creation. We already know that the current United States government does not believe in global warming or the hazards of pollution; now we know it doesn't believe in erosion either.
The polls are evidence that the country is suffering a collective head injury. On any given issue-- the economy, the war in Iraq, health care-- the majority perceive that the situation is bad and the President has handled it badly. Yet these same people, in these same polls, also say they'll be voting for Bush. Like a battered wife-- realizing yet denying what is happening, still making excuses for their man-- the voters are ruled by fear and intimidation and the threat of worse to come. They've been beaten up by the phantom of terrorism.
Every few weeks we're bludgeoned by warnings that terrorists may strike in a matter of days. Incited by the Department of Homeland Security, millions have bought duct tape and plastic sheeting to protect their homes from biological and chemical attack, and have amassed caches of canned food and bottled water. To ensure that everyone everywhere stays afraid, 10,000 FBI agents have been sent to small towns to talk to local police chiefs about what they can do to fight terrorism. After the massacre at Beslan, school principals received letters from the Department of Education instructing them to beware of strangers.The Vice President intones that if Kerry is elected, terrorists will be exploding nuclear bombs in the cities. (And, to anticipate all possibilities, also warns that terrorists may set off bombs before the election to influence the vote. . . but we're not going to let them tell Americans who to vote for, are we?)
Fear has infected even the most common transactions of daily life. It is not only visitors to the US who are treated as criminals, with fingerprints and photographs and retinal scans. Anyone entering any anonymous office building must now go through security clearances worthy of an audience with Donald Rumsfeld. At the airports, fear of flying has been replaced by fear of checking-in. Nearly every day there are stories of people arrested or detained for innocuous activities, like snapping a photo of a friend in the subway or wearing an antiwar button while shopping in the mall. Worst of all, the whole country has acquiesced to the myth of terrorist omnipotence. Even those who laugh at the color-coded Alerts and other excesses of the anti-terror apparatus do not question the need for the apparatus itself. The Department of Homeland Security, after all, was a Democratic proposal first rejected by Bush.
Common sense has retreated to the monasteries of a few websites. It is considered delusional to suggest that international terrorism is nothing more than a criminal activity performed by a handful of people, that Al-Qaeda and similar groups are the Weather Underground, the Brigato Rosso, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, with more sophisticated techniques and more powerful weapons, operating in the age of hysterical 24-hour television news. They are not an army. They are not waging a war. They are tiny groups perpetrating isolated acts of violence.
There's no question they are dangerous individuals, but- without demeaning the indelible trauma of 9/11 or the Madrid bombings- the danger they pose must be seen with some kind of dispassionate perspective. A terrorist attack is a rare and sudden disaster, the man-made equivalent of an earthquake or flood. More people die in the U.S. every year from choking on food than died in the Twin Towers. About 35,000 die annually from gunshot wounds. (While Bush lifts the ban on assault weapons, and both Bush and Kerry promote gun ownership, a captured al-Qaeda manual recommends traveling to the U.S. to buy weapons.) About 45,000 die in car crashes-- while the Bush administration lowers automobile safety standards to increase the profits of the auto industry, major donors to his campaign. Millions, of course, die from diseases, and one can only imagine if the billions spent on useless elephantine bureaucracies like the Department of Homeland Security had gone to hospitals and research. If the goal were genuinely to protect lives, fighting terrorism would be a serious matter for police and intelligence agencies, and a small project of a nation's well-being.
Compare, for a moment, Spain. After the Madrid bombings, the police, in a few days, arrested those responsible. (After 9/11, the U.S. rounded up more than 5,000 people- many of whom still in jail and not a single one of whom has been proven to have any connection to any form of terrorist activity.) They did not carpet-bomb Morocco. They are quietly increasing police surveillance without Terror Alert national panics and with little or no interruption of daily life. And, geographically, demographically, and historically (the fundamentalist dream of recuperating al-Andalus), there is a much greater possibility of another terrorist attack in Spain than in the U.S.
But of course the current "war on terrorism" is not about saving lives at all; it's about keeping power in the hands of a tiny cell of ideologues. In the manner of all totalitarian societies, the Bush junta, with a happily compliant mass media, has wildly exaggerated the power of the Enemy. This has allowed them to wage a war in Iraq they began planning long before 9/11 and to plot further invasions, to suspend Constitutional rights and disdain international law, to enrich their friends and ignore the opinions of most of the world. Many Americans who dislike Bush will still vote for him in November because the marketing campaign has made him appear the resolute "wartime" Commander-in-Chief who will keep the nation "safe." It has become futile to try to argue that this war on terror doesn't exist,
that the actual war in Iraq has nothing to do with the safety of Americans at home, and that abroad it has killed or maimed more Americans than 9/11. It remains to be seen what price the country, and the world, will pay for this fantasy.
An unnamed "senior adviser" to Bush recently told the journalist Ron Suskind that people like Suskind were members of "what we call the reality-based community": those who "believe that solutions emerge from [the] judicious study of discernible reality." However, he explained, "That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality... we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
This may well be the clearest expression yet of the Bush Doctrine. To become enraged by particulars-- the daily slaughter in Iraq, the prison torture, the worst economy since the Great Depression, the banana republic tricks and slanders of the electoral campaign-- is to miss the point. We are no longer in "discernible reality." In the second term, the only choice will be to line up for your medication and enjoy the New Freedom. As Bush now says in every speech, "freedom is
on the march."
[23 October 2004]
Copyright c. 2004 Eliot Weinberger. This may circulate freely on the
internet; for print publication please write: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eliot Weinberger's chronicles of the Bush Era are collected in "9/12,"
published by Prickly Paradigm/Univ. of Chicago Press.
Hoa and I (and Keaton and Waylon) leave tomorrow a.m. (Oct 20) for the Bay Area to read for the Cabinet of the Muses event sponsored by UC. We read with Claudia Rankine and others Friday, Oct 22, for those who can make it. Send e-mail, if you must, to email@example.com. I won't look at the other account until we return Oct 26.
This link was shared with me this morning with images from Iraq.
Blogging, clearly, has not been on the top of my priorities of late.
Some things on Silliman's site got me thinking about poetic environments. He frames the concern within aspects of generation. I think of a poet's immediate generation or contemporaries as those he or she first began to engage with over the poem. Those who stick with it reveal a trajectory based within the complex rhetorical environments used to discuss poetry. Each individual continues a practice at times in unison and at times in discord with the more general concerns of his or her generation. A poet's community is made of the living and the dead. Among the living there may be people you rarely, if ever, see. Over time, scenes dissolve. The particular poetic community expands and is defined through argument and supporting efforts of publication.
The Market, on the other hand, that creates an illusion of desire for poetic merchandise, reflects the intellectual fads and products that relate to a general climate or common denominator. The Market is a poor measure of poetry. Silliman's example, Robert Duncan, in whose late work we find much that works in conflict with dominate markets and regional scenes, remains an extraordinary recorder of memory. In America, of all places, there is an issue of the dead resurrected in the word perennially. It's because words are magic, in Kenneth Burke's sense, that language environments can dynamically change. Perhaps it will be an audience of a future we can't now comprehend that will pick up late Duncan. Better yet, my sense is that there are current living communities for whom his work remains vital.
The expression of that vitality could be questioned. There's a lot of pollution in contemporary poetry environments. The conversations are limited or enervated by the mass of production. I'm thinking of Steve Evans' essay in The Poker. It's not the critics role--nor the concern of the community--to accept and note every word, every publication. As I see it, the position of the critic is to make a stand for what is significant. What does a critic value? a poet?. The critic and the community, differently, put their necks on the line by stating clearly their beliefs. In the 1960s you could safely evaluate the world of small press letters, and today you can't catalogue it all. But there are works that receive our attention and others that don't despite the mass of small chapbooks, book contests, MFA grads and proliferating cultural environments for the poem. How do our different environments feed minds and imagination? Perhaps it's time to recognize a diversity of environments that often come into contact with one another. But the function of the uber environment--the Market--is no longer a necessity. Perhaps a self-published chapbook is as important a cultural contribution as the latest from Fence, Verse, Coffee House etc. And these presses represent small bean efforts in comparison with the larger culture industry. The thing is, poetry is open to anyone to practice, but communities, governed by their environments, must make decisions of value and significance in order to sharpen and extend the modal tensions and arguments of individuals within their social and creative spaces.
In myself there's a strong question of legitimacy. My lack of academic affiliation and professional regard makes me uncertain and insecure. I worry about the future of my family. How will I provide? You want work pubished, and the hope of a job some day and validation is given for the hard work. But that validation may rob you of other gifts. So what's the answer? None I can think of but to deal accordingly with the immediate environment or situation. Expand it. Open its discourse to others. Deepen its engagement. Derive significance from the larger American scene beyond me.
My proposal for a book I may never write is to look closely at the environments of the Wordsworths and Coleridge and Olson/ Creeley. Maybe even Savage and Johnson or Zukofsky / Niedecker. What concerns me more and more is cultural memory and how poetry contributes to its transmission. The poem as impersonal device seems to be a record of enivronmental collectives, despite the single name attached. "The Vanity of Human Wishes" is not the product of one Sam Johnson, but the collective pressure of economic, creative, and literary influences through one 18th c. individual primarily receptive to the stresses and correlations of his milieu. But there's more to be said on this. Much more to dig up. Perhaps someone out there has already written on this. I need to do my research.
Anyway, thanks to Chris Murray and others for turning my rhetorical wheels.