Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ideas in Flight

I don't suppose there could be a better day all year to start off a post by talking about public transportation – even though that will turn out not to be the main thrust of the discussion. But I have to credit public transportation with at least serving as a muse in this case. There's nothing like standing in an airport security line to get one thinking... like, how did things come to this sorry pass? I thought we were living in the “land of the free”, etc. (As a sidebar, I should comment that airport security is, for most middle-class people, the first opportunity they have to experience the “America” that the lower classes experience on a daily basis – a landscape of frowns, suspicion, paranoia, random searches and friskings, obtrusive questioning, etc. And this, I submit, is what has airline passengers – the vast majority of whom are middle-class – the most upset. They feel they are being treated inappropriately for their social status, not on an absolute basis.)

I'm old enough to remember what might be termed the “golden age” of air travel – or at least its twilight years. In those times, you could walk right up to the gate even if you weren't “ticketed”, either to greet someone or see someone off. The airlines served hot meals on real china and with real silverware and linen – not some poor imitation of fast-food carry-out, with everything embalmed in plastic bubbles. And on the first jumbo jets – ah, the memories! -- there was a bar at the top of the winding staircase from which even the “coach class” passenger could look out, in a leisurely and luxurious way, upon the moving landscape.

Now, this is not to say there was not a downside – the main one being the absurd custom of having “smoking” and “non-smoking” sections on a sealed airplane. Whoever thought that up has to have his bust included in a pantheon of marketing geniuses – but he'll certainly never win any awards from the American Lung Association.

But those days are gone with the wind, and now all but the most privileged must stand in a line fit for refugees from some Eastern European conflict – gray and dismal, punctuated only by crying babies and the occasional outburst from a fed-up passenger. And of course the TSA personnel, like everyone else who experiences real power for the first time, lord it over the crowd like concentration camp guards, tripping you up with ever-changing, arbitrary, and senseless rules. Not only are no two airports alike when it comes to security provisions, but it turns out that no two security lines are alike! The randomness works itself down to the smallest and most trivial details – and it's all designed to keep people off balance, to render them helpless in the face of authority.

So really – aside from the privileged few, as I said – air travel is no longer a pleasure, but is a gigantic pain in the ass, if you'll pardon my French. Not that train travel is a whole lot better – I mean, there are no luggage restrictions and no security lines, and the seats are larger, and there is more leg room, but the food is execrable, the schedules are surreally sparse and bad, and American trains have the curious habit of running hours (or even days) late, even though weather is, to say the least, not quite the factor it is with air travel. And then there is bus travel... and I'll spare you the horrors of contemporary bus stations, all of which seem to be situated in the very worst parts of town. And... well, really, so much for public transportation! Americans, who value the freedom to travel far above all other freedoms, are more assaulted and mistreated when it comes to travel than anyone in Europe and a good proportion of people in Asia. We sit over here in this benighted desert of public transportation turning green with envy every time we contemplate the transportation systems of Europe, Japan, and (increasingly) China. They somehow managed to make it happen – but we couldn't manage it with all the money in the world; therein lies the mystery.

I suppose that, in an odd kind of way, public transportation represents, for most Americans, a kind of capitulation – a giving up of the real thing, travel-wise, which means the freedom to drive one's own car wherever and whenever one pleases. Compared to that, all other forms seem vaguely socialistic, somehow – compromises. I mean, would Jack Kerouac have written “On the Road” about bus travel? Would “Easy Rider” have been the same if it had happened on a train? “Travels With Charley” on airplanes? No – the whole thing is absurd, a violation of a big part of the American dream. What began as a simple, practical means of colonization, settlement, and the movement west gradually morphed into an American ideal and icon; the closing of the frontier did not end the American urge for movement, it only forced it to morph in a different direction. Rather than “heading west” we now head, basically, wherever we aren't at present. Americans are restless and migratory – and it's no accident that this characterizes a society built primarily on ideas rather than a sense of place. Because to think of America-in-general as a place, we have to be motivated not by a reality, but by an idea of America – by a myth, in other words. When people think of a real place, they think of a home town, a neighborhood, a farm – not an entire country, and seldom even an entire state. People who think in those latter terms are likely to be “rootless cosmopolitans” -- to resurrect an old expression – who may or may not be deracinated (i.e. deprived of racial, ethnic, and religious roots, either voluntarily or by force) but who certainly have no loyalty or consideration for the land. Even the old-time wanderers, hobos, “rolling stones” -- celebrated in song and story – were “from” somewhere. (They often had nicknames that included their point of origin, like Cincinnati Red.) What we have now is a nation of people, many of whom are from nowhere – I mean, they had to have grown up somewhere, but they have no sense of place, either past or present. And it's hardly necessary to point out that the great American suburb is the worst place, and the most aggravating factor, for this sense of rootlessness... of “nowhereness”. And sure enough, when the central planners and “urban renewal” enforcers wanted to deracinate and demoralize a given racial/ethnic/religious group, where did they send them (or force them to go)? Why, to the suburbs, of course! A different city neighborhood, or even a small town, might have enabled them to keep some of their culture and sense of identity intact, and surely we can't have that.

So in a sense, the current, residual fetish for travel that infects Americans is a symptom of this deracination and displacement – an endless and futile search for that which is lost. Who knows? It might be just around the next corner, or over the next hill. So the quest goes on – and we wind up in a state of despair that does not know it is despair, to use an expression from Kierkegaard. There are many American pathologies, and this may not even be the most severe, but it certainly has a huge impact on our sense of being and identity as individuals and as a people.

But let's return to our cozily depressing and humiliating security line for a moment. A young traveler won't notice that anything has changed; he or she will assume it has always been this way, and might vaguely wonder why, but decide not to worry about it – the way most people simply accept the fact that there are always long lines at the DMV. (Imagine the shock and disorientation of a typical Russian who woke up one morning after the breakup of the Soviet Union and found that he didn't have to stand in line 3 or 4 hours to buy a loaf of bread!)

But for people like me, who remember the “golden age”, questions arise. The TSA was supposedly formed to guard against “further terrorist attacks” -- and if you look at the numbers, you might almost think they were succeeding, except for all the newspaper articles that point out repeated failures (most of which have non-fatal consequences, at least). You can only credit something with success if you can count the number of times it has kept something bad from happening – and this is, of course, impossible with an outfit like the TSA. For all I know, they have been successful – wildly so. But there is no way of proving it, so it quickly sinks into the usual bureaucratic quicksand and starts to exist for the sake of existence, like most other government agencies. My theory, as I've explained before, is that 9/11 was “mission accomplished” for the “terrorists”, or whoever was responsible, and that it doesn't need to happen again – no repeat performance necessary, since we are being bled white by endless wars in the Middle East, our economy is in a shambles, and our national morale is on life support. What better reward could any enemy hope to gain than that? The events of 9/11 did not bring down the American Empire in a single blow... but our actions since that date have served just as well, if not better. The terrorists didn't have to lift a finger to do anything else over here; all they have to do is keep things hot in the Middle East, and they have their revenge for all real and imagined offenses by America over the years. If, by a single act, you can get your enemy to destroy itself – well, that has to rank as one of the cleverest tactics ever devised... and yet it seems to be working. (And in fact, it works no matter who was ultimately responsible for 9/11; the model is “robust”, as they say in statistics.)

So OK, if our security-line woes are the fault of TSA, and if their existence is the fault of “terrorists” (or whoever), and the trigger for all of it was the 9/11 attacks, then what caused those? The best answer, still, is the one provided by Ron Paul, which caused Rudy Giuliani to suffer an apoplectic fit right on stage: “They're over here because we're over there.” OK then, why are we over there? And this is where the arguments bifurcate. Some will say the necessary and sufficient reason is the “defense” of Israel (a euphemism for “fighting their wars for them”). Others will say it's oil. Others, a combination of the two; neither one would have been sufficient for us to make that much of an investment. To which I have to add, there is also the factor of a new Crusade – this time preached by the Protestants – a new war on Islam, which might not hinge on either Israel or oil as essential elements. This might sound unlikely, but have a look at what is coming out of the intelligence agencies and the military commands these days – a relentless propaganda campaign (for the morale of the troops, of course) that says nothing about either Israel or oil, but plenty about Islam – not just as a source of “terrorism” but as an evil in its own right. Yes, this is actually being preached to military personnel and intelligence personnel, with the help of “advisors” from the Evangelical community – to which I say, whatever happened to “the wall of separation between church and state”? I think the answer is that the warfare is asymmetrical, in that it involves a secular state (us) against a religion (Islam). So “terrorism” is the excuse, but religion is the basic motive – for us as well as for them. Notice what a hard time we have deciding how, when, and where to try “terrorists”? It's because we can't decide what their status is, and that's because we can't decide what sort of conflict we're engaged in, and that's because there is no provision in the Constitution for wars of religion – and yet that's what we're fighting.

So in a broad sense – and as Ron Paul's statement implied – 9/11 was a self-inflicted wound. Some form, or aspect, of American empire building had inexorably led to it – and once it occurred, what was our response? To rethink our foreign policy and our overseas military and economic adventures? Not a bit of it. Our response was, predictably, to double down on our “commitments” overseas, or – to put it another way – everywhere but at home. The surest sign of a dying empire is that the citizenry starve while the military prospers, even in the most remote, out-of-the-way locales. This process did not start with 9/11, but those events solidified the pattern and established the process as one which is unstoppable until it leads to utter destruction. And sure, we will have our Mideast oil for a while, and will “defend” Israel for a while, but in the long run it is all doomed. That is, if we follow the trajectory of every other empire known to history – and what makes us think we have the will or the power to be any different? But it's another trait of empires to perpetually think, “we're different” -- we can dodge fate, we can sidestep karma. Yet it's that very attitude that accelerates the process of destruction, decay, and annihilation.

And I might mention as another sidebar the latest farce to come down the pike, namely our supposed “getting tough” with China – on economic, financial, trade, and “human rights” issues. When I was over there recently, I couldn't help but notice that every map of the country included the South China Sea, with a scattering of islands. Yes, they are totally convinced that that is their territory, and to heck with any “law of the sea” treaties. So now we are about to challenge them on this, as well as some other things? We, who owe China trillions in national debt? We, who can't keep a lid on two completely-wrecked countries in the Middle East, are now about to challenge China for dominance in East Asia? A country made up of sane people would immediately move to lock up anyone who came up with an idea this crazy – but when everybody's insane, only the few sane ones get that sort of treatment.

But really, it's all just huffing and puffing – no genuine confrontation with China is contemplated, simply because none is possible, and it wouldn't work; we'd just make fools of ourselves. What counts is not the reality, but the playacting, and I suspect that China is complicit in all this. In other words, they are perfectly willing to allow us to blow off steam once in a while, just as we allow them to – as long as nothing comes of it, which it never does. I mean, when's the last time they took our advice... on anything? All they have to do is wave that huge I.O.U. in our faces, and the conversation comes to a screeching halt. And yet it's considered politically expedient to mouth words once in a while... like we insist on having a “presence” in East Asia and in the Pacific. Well, fine – we can have all the “presence” we want, as long as it doesn't alter the power structure. Can't you see that it's nothing more than a desperation move to distract people from our abject failures in the Middle East? (Not to mention from our economic woes.) Oh yes, by all means – let's expand the American empire, already in its death throes, to another entire area of the globe. It's pathetic, really.

But there's another question I want to deal with here, and it goes back to my excellent adventure in the airport security line. Given that the events of 9/11 took a good chunk out of the American dream – or maybe woke us up from it, at least temporarily – what, precisely, is it that we have lost? And I don't mean the convenience of air travel; that's much too superficial an issue. There is a widespread feeling that we have lost some of “what it means to be an American” -- not just in convenience but in self-image and self-respect, not to mention various "freedoms" and "rights". The biggest worry is that we might, someday, become “just another country”, just another place on the map, with no extraordinary charism... no mandate to go and conquer the world in the name of “democracy” or some other idea. Now, you'll notice that we're talking about ideas here, and only ideas – not anything tangible that people traditionally value... things like race, ethnicity, religion... and “place”, as I discussed above. Nothing really “died” on 9/11; our innocence was long gone (thanks to Vietnam etc.). But what suffered a stunning blow was our notion that just having the right “ideas” was enough – enough to merit our claim to world domination (politically and economically). It turned out that there was a big, wide world out there that didn't give a fig for our ideas, but preferred either its own, or (perhaps worse) no ideas at all. That was one blow. And the next was, again, self-inflicted – the fact that, in order to defend ourselves against “terrorism”, we had to start canceling the freedoms that the “terrorists” supposedly despise... the very reason they attacked us, in fact! Because they hate our freedom! (This either sounded absurd when Bush said it, but sounds reasonable when Obama says it, or vice versa, depending on your party affiliation.) So they attacked us because they hate our freedoms, with the result that we were forced to give up some of those freedoms, which means they win! Right? But, of course, that wasn't the reason they attacked us at all, and only the most shameless demagogue would claim that it is.

But aside from this massive exercise in irony, it must be admitted that we are, indeed, a different country than we were in those – now seemingly cheerful, innocent, and sepia-toned – days prior to 9/11. We have lost some obvious things, but some less obvious things as well. With each stunning blow – starting at least as far back as the Civil War – we lose another piece of our self-image and, truth be told, our self-esteem... although the latter effect can be indefinitely delayed through the use of bluster, propaganda, and military adventures. And why is this such a bad thing? After all, every nation suffers setbacks from time to time. Our problem is that we have nothing to fall back on; if our ideas fail, and if our ideals turn out to have feet of clay, we are devastated. This nation was founded with, among other things, an explicit mandate to do away with all of the old verities – things like race, ethnicity, and religion (of the confessional, vs. deistic, kind) – and replace them with ideas. So the “American character”, of which much has been made over the years, has no real solid basis; it's one part abstraction and one part accident. We fancy that we are, as a people, what we say, or think, we are – but all of those ideas are easily disproven by historical evidence as well as current events. The beauty of the old verities was that one could identify with them without their having to be perfect, or without the act of identification having to be perfect. A bad Frenchman was still a Frenchman, in other words – whereas a bad American is really not an American at all, since he has failed to live up to an abstract and impossible-to-achieve ideal. You can't go home again if there is no such place.

And national character – when founded on the old verities – had a funny way of surviving even the severest tests. Frenchmen were no less French after their revolution than they were before, even though that revolution was the most idea-laden event in history. The Russians were certainly no less Russian after their own revolution, or after their own reign of terror... and I found out, by first-hand observation, that the Chinese are still very much Chinese, despite all the best efforts of Mao and his Cultural Revolution. In other words, if there is one strong thing in human history, it is national (or regional, tribal, whatever) character, which is a composite of race, ethnicity, and religion as well as language, the arts, and countless other traditions, customs, mores, habits, and so forth. And yet, in the name of “ideas”, we have been more than willing – anxious, even – to give all of this up for the sake of becoming some kind of universal, generic exemplar of “democracy” or “freedom” (as we define it). And if the long-term goal of our revolution, and our founding, was to turn out a race of deracinated, culturally-sterile androids, we have succeeded to a great extent. This pure American type – a counterpart to the New Soviet Man – is alive and well (so to speak) in all American suburbs, and in other enclaves of the middle class. Their strength is that they have no loyalty to anything but ideas. Their weakness is... well, the same as their strength. As long as the ideas remain on the winning side, all is well – but when things start to fall apart, what is there to cushion the fall? Nothing, really – and this is the real source of the middle class's current spasm of discontent, as expressed in the “tea party” movement. The secular god we have been worshiping for all these many years has failed... the scales are falling from many eyes... and people are realizing they've been robbed. They traded the birthright of every man down through history – the right to pride of place and of belonging to a group defined by objective criteria – for a mess of ideational pottage that, as it turns out, most of the people in charge never believed in anyway. They were, in other words, fooled, duped, and misled by a bunch of cynics – and they continue to be! Nothing has changed except that the consciousness of a few has been expanded a bit. But they will soon be swamped and carried back into the vast sea of ignorance and subservience that everyone else calls home.

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