When we talk about
settling the world’s problems,
we’re barking up the wrong tree.
The world is perfect. It’s a mess.
It has always been a mess.
We are not going to change it.
Our job is to straighten out
our own lives.
– Joseph Campbell
I just returned from visiting friends in Maine, a place famous as an August getaway for refugees from the east coast rat-race. Historically, those who got away to Maine were called “rusticators,” since they went to Maine to experience fresh air and the rustic life.
The Institute for Economics & Peace lists Maine number one in its United States Peace Index. They say Maine is the safest state in the union, and they suggest “peacefulness” is good for all economies and would save us hundreds of billions of dollars.
My friends live on the finger of a hand that extends into the sea. Their tidy house is surrounded by forest, and they are a short drive to several picturesque villages with lobster boats moored in their small harbors. While I was there my cell phone didn’t work, I didn’t check my emails and I didn’t read or watch any news for five days.
Then we drove home to our Philadelphia suburb and five days worth of New York Times, plus emails from several hundred people anguishing over one horror or another. Here’s just a partial list of the mess:
After making an effort to cut our addiction, the US is now relying on Saudi Arabian oil more than ever; the Egyptian president fired his armed forces chief and replaced him with a guy who publicly called for the removal of US military power from the Middle East and who said al Qaeda was an “international insurgency movement” motivated by grievances with US policy; young American Jews are flocking to join the Israeli Defense Force as right-wing Israeli leaders threaten to attack Iran before the US election; Syria is in flat-out civil war now spreading into Lebanon with both the US and al Qaeda supporting the same insurgent elements; in Afghanistan, 40 US soldiers are killed when two helicopters fall out of the sky (the Taliban say they shot the copters down, while the Pentagon tells us it was “mechanical difficulties.”)
Meanwhile, at home disgruntled Americans are shooting each other at alarming rates; “liberal” President Obama continues to pare down the Constitution by further restricting lawyers in Guantanamo as he continues to crack down on whistleblowers; all this as the Presidential campaign reaches a level of unprecedented absurdity and corruption.
We need to laugh at this stuff, lest we cry, or, heaven forbid, arm ourselves and join the ranks of the weapon-worshipping crazies in this country — be they loners with a grudge or government operatives protecting their power bases. That is, those on either side of the law who feel the use of weaponry and physical force is a solution to anything rather than just another provocation adding to the mess.
While I was away Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running mate. The absurdity of this pairing is amazing. Romney is notorious for refusing to run on his record because it’s too liberal. So he must run with no discernable policy other than I’m very rich and I will be the CEO of the United States of America as the world’s number one business. Romney actually campaigns on the idea the nation is a business!
Paul Ryan, on the other hand, is a young man elevated to national prominence for actually articulating a direct and clear conservative policy, which is based, we learn, on his worship of Ayn Rand. He wants to cut benefits for the poor to encourage the rise of more Rand-style supermen. He truly seems to see himself in this mirror.
So what is the first thing the Romney camp does? They silence the man famous for his ruthless clarity of mission and make him deny Ayn Rand. This would seem to leave Ryan like a fish-out-of-water destined to be a male Sarah Palen, a “hail Mary” VP candidate who in the end becomes a liability. Without the Randian social Darwinism, Ryan is just another handsome suit. That he may be good for fund-raising just means more vicious, lying TV ads bought by the corrupt billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
Politics As Crime Drama
After going through my New York Times on Friday I turned to the back page of the A-section and encountered the ad (below) for a cable TV series called Boss. I’ve never seen the show, but the Boss website suggests it’s about a corrupt and neurologically ill Chicago mayor who goes “nuts” and starts to clean up the mess he has made — using tactics as ruthless as he used to make the mess in the first place. It’s a really boffo conceit for our age: The audience gets to cheer for a corrupt politician. The dramatic tension is: Will he go to jail or heaven?
The mise-en-scene of a meat locker with humans hanging on meat hooks does capture something of the corrupt American politics of 2012. It smacks of Dick Cheney and his notion (in no way dismantled by the Obama administration) that when times get tough we need to go to the “dark side.” The image says this guy makes the trains run on time. It also makes it clear the days of Frank Capra and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington have gone the way of Mother Goose.
The Darkness is loose and it has pervaded our imperial political system like the vampire virus plague in Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s 2010 horror novel The Fall. This is from the novel’s prologue:
“But in the end, it was just us. All of us. We allowed it to happen because we never believed it could happen. We were too smart. Too advanced. Too strong.
“And now the darkness is complete.”
Or this from Albert Camus’ famous, more realistic 1956 novel, also called The Fall.
“We are all exceptional cases,” Clamence, the lawyer narrator, says. “We all want to appeal against something! Each of us insists on being innocent at all costs, even if he has to accuse the whole human race and heaven itself.”
Everywhere we turn we encounter power that rules by secrecy and lies or bullshit. The best politicians are too often those who can speak in riddles and runes that get them elected but have little or nothing to do with how they will eventually rule if elected. Can anyone even imagine a direct, honest answer from either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? They and their political entourages are terrified of real truth. Truth is like kryptonite.
In this climate of darkness and lies, guns and violence become more and more “as American as cherry pie,” as H. Rap Brown famously put it. (Brown is now serving a life sentence in Georgia for killing a cop.) The threat comes from both the criminal world and official agencies; one is the flip-side of the other. Money effectively trumps compassion in state power. Cheating becomes a way of life.
As American politicians work their hearts out bolstering and preserving the Myth of American Exceptionalism, it’s becoming very clear we have lost what bearings we ever had as a morally centered culture. Everyone seems to fear disaster or drowning so much they hold on for dear life to their status or possessions like pieces of flotsam on the high seas.
Life in America feels like a runaway train on which the engineer and most everyone else is looking backwards. Those looking forward too often do it in the spirit of the propagandistic Clint Eastwood Super Bowl ad declaring America’s “second half” is going to be even better than the first.
Joseph Campbell has it right when he says our job in this perfect mess is to straighten out our own lives. For me, that echoes the old notion of “think globally, act locally.” It’s what Ralph Nader meant when he told a group of antiwar veterans protesting in front of the White House, “What we need to do is dig deep into our communities.” This takes courage — because compassionate people need to do it without the psychic comforts of bigotry, guns, religion or flag-waving.
In Maine and other places you feel this kind of work is being done. It’s about growing our own food, as my friends do. It’s about maintaining what we have so we don’t have to play emergency catch-up when things fall apart. A town near us outside Philadelphia has begun a bartering system, which means goods and service are exchanged on a local, social basis with no “income” involved. The point is to live life without paying fealty to, or living in fear of, a more and more precarious Empire. It’s about protecting ourselves, our loved ones and our allies if and when the ship of state cracks up.
Here’s Joseph Campbell’s harsh prescription for times like these:
When we fix on the old, we get stuck.
When we hang onto any form,
we are in danger of putrefaction.
Hell is life drying up.
the one in us that wants to keep,
to hold on, must be killed.