The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.
-Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit
I had an interesting exchange recently with a man I met at my local Panera where I often have a breakfast sandwich and coffee while I read The New York Times. I’d seen this fellow a few days earlier limping very painfully, so I stopped to ask how he was feeling. We exchanged some old-man stuff: he was dealing with gout, diabetes and neuropathy, while I had gone through prostate cancer and triple bypass heart surgery. It came out he was a Vietnam veteran, as am I. We also shared VA benefits; he’s been at 60% for some time, and I’m now at 70% — both cases due to what is called “presumptive” connections with Agent Orange.
Then, we somehow got onto politics, and it came out he’d voted for Trump and I’d voted for Biden. This seemed to surprise him. Suddenly, all the things we had shared (including that it was good Joe Biden was getting out of Afghanistan) went out the window and he soon said: “The trouble with you people is . . .”
I laughed. “You people?”
One of his grievances was liberals like me always want to help people out; we want to open the border and let everybody in; we want to raise taxes. The list goes on.
“Wait a minute. We both just agreed Vietnam never should have happened and that we’re now both on the tax-based government tit.”
He apparently had no comeback for this and just stared at me. He said he was a “physical conservative.” I told him, despite my liberal tendencies, I was a conservative on a lot of things. To me, that meant life is complicated. But, apparently, whatever kind of conservative I was didn’t qualify.
They were calling my name because my sandwich was ready, so I said we’d pick it up at another time. I was left with the fact, on a dime, we’d gone from serious shared life experience to me being one of “those people.” The conversation had been cordial, even after he learned I had voted for Biden. But I had, instantly, become one of them. In his mind I’d gone from concerned fellow citizen to the problem in the blink of an eye. Of course, from his point of view, it probably felt the same way when I learned he liked Trump.
In Haiti, those investigating the recent murder of President Jovenel Moïse are in hiding after being informed there would be “a bullet in the head” if they continued. Evidence of the deadly coup attempt has been tampered with or disappeared. It reminded me of the efforts, here, to diminish and ignore evidence of the January 6th attack on the US capitol building.
The corruption quotient in the small island of Haiti is obviously of a different order than what we live with here in the United States. Our brand of corruption is much more powerful and sophisticated, and as Professor Frankfurt points out, above, as Americans we’ve become accustomed to a quite high level of self-delusional bullshit.
No one, here, that I know of has threatened anyone with “a bullet in the head” for investigating the January 6th events. Instead, the tactic is non-cooperation, obfuscation and demonization. We get snickering suggestions the rioters were just exuberant tourists. Trump Republicans express dismay at the idea of a congressional investigation and ridicule the manhood of anyone pursuing that course. Fox News anchors like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham (normally, zealously pro-police) publicly ridiculed capitol police officers for expressing their pain and anguish.
Mary Trump, the ex-president’s niece, has just published a book titled The Reckoning. She thinks her uncle and the current cult-of-personality-driven Republican Party exhibit very real fascist instincts. It’s normally tricky to make fascist or Nazi analogies, but a perusal of history makes it clear a fundamental struggle between bottom-up governance (what people often label socialism) and top-down governance (often labeled fascism) is as old as human political life itself. So this kind of struggle is hardly new, as it bears down on us here in America like a category four hurricane.
The only thing I personally know of right-wing death squads comes from travels as a photographer in El Salvador in the mid- to late-1980s, during the Reagan wars. Though my friends and I were sometimes tailed and anxious, I was fortunate because I was carrying the blue passport of the United States.
Walking through a peasant squatters village in San Salvador, I noticed the white-paint handprint of the death squads on a tin shack and pointed it out to the American priest who lived and worked with the poor there. He apparently hadn’t seen it, because he very noticeably cringed. We dropped the subject.
I’ll never forget a woman named Sofia, a member of the group Co-Madres, above, telling visiting gringos in 1986 of finding her daughter’s mutilated, partially-skinned body in a dump where death squad victims often ended up.
A brutal right wing government of wealthy landowners (known historically as “the Fourteen Families”) was fighting a left wing guerrilla force called the Farabundo Marti Liberation Army. If you were poor, violence was a normal state of affairs reaching back to La Matanza, The Massacre, of 1932, where 30,000 peasants were slaughtered in a matter of days. The Reagan administration, of course, enabled the Salvadoran right wing government throughout the ‘80s and looked the other way at regular killings by paramilitary death squads. Every six months, before Congress, despite no let-up of bodies in the street and no evidence at all, the Reagan administration reported that civil rights were improving — to keep the US tax dollars going to the Salvadoran government.
The US is not Haiti or El Salvador. Our domestic struggle involves complicated issues of imperial decay and a looming, uncertain future. There’s the rise of tribalism and authoritarianism. There’s what some call “the rise of the rest”; that is, the developing nations of the former third world, most of them colonized by Europe and its extension, the US Empire. Then there’s the climate: Fires. Tornadoes in New Jersey. Salt water intrusion into the Gold Coast of Florida. Condominiums collapsing. Bring in race, gender, technological advances and the polarization factor rises.
We should not be surprised in this big, fat, rich country of ours that people are now seriously toying with real fascism. For example, Tucker Carlson is doing shows from Hungary, where he interviewed strongman Viktor Orban and suggested his Putin-like rule is a good model for America.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
My fascism antennae quivered two nights ago when I watched the Fox News show Primetime (7 to 8PM) with try-out host Ben Domenech. (Fox uses that slot to try out new anchors.) Domenech is the publisher of The Federalist and a player in other far-right enterprises; he’s married to Meghan McCain, the famous POW/senator’s daughter, who, among other things, has been a host on The View.
Domenech is quite articulate and comes off as a fervid right-wing ideologue — opposed to Fox hosts Hannity, Carlson et al who come off more like right-wing talk-show hosts or entertainers. Domenech isn’t pushing political celebrity or ratings; he’s an intellectual proselytizing for fascism. What caught my attention was Domenech’s citation of the great John Ford film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I’ve seen the movie at least three times. Domenech especially focuses on the core incident of the film when rough-man John Wayne ambushes bad-man Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin at his twisted, sadistic best) after Valance has goaded tenderfoot Eastern lawyer Jimmy Stewart (he’s been washing dishes and is wearing an apron) into a gunfight.
[ Liberty Valance, above, bullies lawyer Ransom Stoddard, while Tom Doniphon — “the toughest man west of the picket wire” — eyeballs Valance. In the key scene, Stoddard accepts Valance’s challenge to a gunfight, which will obviously mean his death. So Doniphon dry-gulches Valance at the moment he draws. Below, at the far right, Doniphon’s loyal black manservant Pompey, played by Woody Strode, watches. Pompey is Doniphon’s gun-bearer and has just tossed him the .30-30 Winchester. Of course, this is the wild west and there is no autopsy to catch that the caliber was wrong. ]
Lawyer Stoddard becomes “the man who shot Liberty Valance”, which propels him in the unnamed western territory to become, when statehood is achieved, the first governor. The frame for the film is Stewart’s arrival back in the town of Shinbone years later as a gray-haired US senator; he’s come to bury the John Wayne character. The local newspaper editor is curious why the senator has come to bury this modest man. The facts about Wayne’s dry-gulching of Valance come out, leading to the famous line delivered by the editor as he tears up his notes and throws them into a stove:
“This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Powerful stuff: The realities of fact, fiction and power in the writing of history summed up in the narrative arc of a western. Naturally, Domenech employs the movie’s message for his purposes. He mixes it up with the current border and immigration issues until, in mellifluous basso tones, he unleashes a disquisition on the need for “rough-men” like John Wayne to preserve the freedom being taken from us by Joe Biden, AOC and the Democrat Party conspiracy.
My problem with Domenech’s analysis of the John Ford classic comes down to this: What exactly does Lee Marvin’s dry-gulched character represent for Domenech? I fear it’s the fact-finders and truth-tellers all authoritarians end up going after — people like me! In my case, I tend to see Lee Marvin’s sadistic character as like those proud boys who, breaking windows and injuring cops, battered their way into the capitol building on January 6. But that’s me; that’s my paranoia. Applying a popular film’s message so literally and so conveniently to current politics feels like a corrupt venture and a violation of the art-making process. The film is about history — not polarized politics in 2021.
With his thoughts on John Wayne’s ambushing of Liberty Valance in mind, here’s Domenech on today’s leftist elites, who . . .
“. . . want to compel you into silence about all the wrongs you see, gaslight you into believing things that are not true, or make you out to be a hateful, ignorant bigot for believing things that are. The central question before you is: What are you willing to do about it?”
He goes on: “We have borders because they are guarded by rough men prepared to do what it takes to protect the lines that delineate a nation. It is meaningless to say that we have laws in our cities if we defund those Americans who are brave enough to enforce them. This may be repugnant to our nation’s elite, but it is essential to a civilized society.”
“What are you willing to do about it?”
Is Domenech justifying ambushing and long-gun snipers to manage the problems he sees? Then to create and sustain a lie or legend to cover the facts for the history books?
The serial killer Son of Sam got his marching orders from a dog. Imagine a frustrated, maybe recently divorced, white male in his mid-forties who hasn’t worked for six weeks. The bank is about to take away his F150. When he’s not at his favorite bar or at the local gun shop, he’s sitting on his couch watching Fox News. He can count his friends on one hand. He’s actually a man caught in a maelstrom of history who really needs a life ring. Leaning in the corner at the end of the couch is his beloved AR15, and his .40 caliber Glock is on the coffee table in front of him. The only time these weapons are not close to him is, due to a judge’s order, when his two small kids come for a visit.
This night he’s doing beer and a pizza and listening to Domenech on the need for rough-men to rid us of the liberal elites “gaslighting you into believing things that are not true.” By now, he knows for certain who these elites are. He’s convinced the America of men like John Wayne is rapidly slipping away. He wants to help save America.
Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels is said to have invented the big lie, though, he probably never actually used the term. The following is from the psychological profile of Goebbels’ boss, Adolf Hitler. It was made by the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services), the predecessor to the CIA:
“[Hitler’s] primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”
The ideas of manifest destiny and winning the west mean one thing to the right and a whole other thing to the left. Those who had the grit to slaughter Indians and to take the law into their own hands didn’t have PTSD counselors to air out their issues. They either went mad or they adjusted to the violence — mastering it or succumbing to it. Horror went with the territory and got absorbed into the American character.
While life is complex and there are certainly honorable aspects in the long tale of settling the west, from what we know, it wasn’t pretty or glorious. At the point of the rifle and six-gun, it was ruthless conquest, a story full of murder, horror and many shameful things. Ford’s movie recognizes this and comes down on the side of sustaining the fictions — the legends. The violence was all about establishing “civilization.” We’ve seen this story over and over in popular tales of tough, white frontier families carving out a nation in the hostile world of the wild west.
“Shane! Come back!”
Ex-President Barack Obama has called this current moment in history a “third reconstruction” — following the one after the Civil War and the one in the 1960s known as the Civil Rights Movement. It’s a great metaphor. At such moments in history, people assert themselves and ask questions. Fed up with legends, they want the hard facts. Meanwhile, others play out a backlash. The struggle is on.
My question is this: After being primed by fascist messaging like Domenech’s, at what point, and how, do the deluded patriotic forces of January 6th put their minds, strange-bedfellow allies and AR15s together and set loose some flagrantly foolish fascist play for power that will forever destroy an imperfect democracy struggling to survive? Some extremists call it Boogaloo. Charles Manson called it Helter Skelter. The current Netflicks film 22 July examines a real case where Anders Breivik, a right-wing extremist in Norway, murdered 77 people, 69 of them kids at an island encampment. Why? Because they were liberal elites, and he felt he was “at war” and hoped to spark civil war in Europe.
Coda: Radio Free Kansas
Every Tuesday, I co-host a Radio Free Kansas radio show with Kansan Mike Caddell by phone from the Philadelphia area. This past Tuesday (after I wrote this essay) a caller named Thomas and I got into it over the epic story of Manifest Destiny vis-a-vis Native Americans.
The exchange is a perfect example of the idea dramatized in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance — ie. that, in the telling of history, there are facts and there are legends. It started when I suggested it was European settlers — not Native Americans — who introduced the concept of the massacre in the Americas, that Native Americans traditionally used skulking tactics and the taking of coup to solve power struggles. He said I was telling “fairy tales.” I suggested it was he who was telling a fairy tale — or legend — by suggesting the violence of Manifest Destiny was morally justified because, as he believed, Native Americans were nothing but vicious barbarians who needed to be cleansed for the advance of American civilization. He became obnoxious and we cut him off.
(Here’s the LINK to the show. To hear the exchange, slide the bar over to timecode 29.22 and listen.)
One thing I’ve discovered: people with certain agendas can’t abide by complexity, nuance and uncertainty. And as the Israeli writer Amos Oz has pointed out, zealots don’t have senses of humor.