Mar 8, 2014
Empathy for the Devil
Posted on Mar 17, 2011
By Mr. Fish
I first saw the massive spread of twinkling lights that is Los Angeles at night from the San Gabriel Mountains in the early 1990s while visiting from Philadelphia. It was stunningly beautiful and made me think of a phone interview that I’d heard on CNN a year earlier just after New Year’s during the Gulf War.
The images that were being telecast during the interview were those of nighttime warfare, the sort that made every television set in America appear as if it was a murky green fish tank full of randomly ejaculated sparks and vague flashes of percussive light almost too dim to see. Saddam Hussein by that time had already lost his air force and had begun to run out of Scud missiles, which, as projectiles, were never any more precise or destructive than far-flung empty hot water heaters, and there was little doubt, particularly in countries not being fed the CNN feed, that some brutally excessive and wholly unnecessary slaughter of Iraqi soldiers and civilians was being perpetrated in the desert.
The interviewee was a 10-year-old Israeli girl who was being asked her opinion about how well the U.S.-led coalition forces were faring in their bombing campaign—a loaded question to be sure, particularly because a 10-year-old girl might not be trusted to honestly answer the question “Did you brush your teeth?” without a corroborating fondling of her toothbrush’s bristles to test for wetness; forget about asking her to elaborate on something as outlandishly subjective as a war. Thus, it was not a question in search of a real answer. Instead, it was an attempt by a news corporation to give its viewers the same thrill at holiday time that radio listeners got to experience in the 1940s while listening to Edward R. Murrow tell them how the GIs were sacrificing their own innocence and pleasant dispositions and apple-cheeked virginity to the noble barbarity of butchering all the fascist monsters who wanted to devour America’s children, grandchildren, puppies and kittens.
The girl answered the question by saying, “I heard an American pilot who was dropping bombs on Baghdad at night say that it looked beautiful, like a Christmas tree. I don’t think I’ll ever understand Americans.”
Sitting in the dark woods above the L.A. basin a year after that interview, with the scent of pine and damp roots and cold earth permeating my clothes, I wondered what super-sparkly destructiveness I was looking at down below and I questioned the sanity of my elation. Sure, I knew that there was a difference between me looking down at Tinseltown from a wooded mountaintop in Southern California and a U.S. fighter pilot exploding the soft gooey insides of Iraqis from an F-15 Eagle, but the difference was by no means significant enough to make what was startlingly similar inconsequential; the similarity, of course, being that both my and the pilot’s physiologies were completely interchangeable in their reaction to what each had experienced.
Both said “neato” and asked that we not turn away, declaring that there was poetry in what we had witnessed.
Ever since then I’ve wondered how anybody can ever really feel morally superior to anybody else, even when comparing himself to those who might find beauty in the rocket’s red glare as it vaporizes those whose only retaliation against annihilation is to stain the soles of the conqueror’s shoes. With that in mind, I’ve also extended my mystification to the question of whether or not anybody can truly be classified as evil. Kurt Vonnegut has famously claimed that there are no villains in the human species, nor are there heroes. It was his belief that only those circumstances born from the intellectual and emotional inadequacies of humankind should be seen as being either good or bad—and, then, not even as good or bad, but rather as fortunate and unfortunate.
Can this be right?
In early September of last year I went to Yasgur’s farm, the site of the 1969 Woodstock Festival, to douche Glenn Beck out of my brain. Earlier, after several days of watching and rewatching the televised footage of the Fox News nimrod pacing back and forth in front of the Lincoln Memorial and spouting off, like an Archie Bunker who had been properly Eliza Doolittled, about how it was time for all the white, racist, heterosexual, gun- and tea-toting Jesus freaks in Middle America to reclaim their former glory as repressive and paranoid snobs unembarrassed by their infantile urge to flaunt their prejudices and petty hatreds in public, the coiled slime inside my skull had become fetid and stinky and in need of the hard vinegar stream of some bleeding-heart, communal optimism.
Remembering a conversation that I’d had with my brother several weeks earlier, I knew that three of the most notorious bleeding-heart communal optimists known to Jann Wenner were scheduled to perform at the Pavilion Stage at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, just several hundred feet from the pile of rocks marking where the original Woodstock stage stood some 41 years earlier; those bleeding-heart communal optimists being David Crosby, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills, the Peter, Paul and Mary of the Folk You! Generation. With only lawn seats available for purchase, I decided to send an e-mail to Graham Nash, whom I’d interviewed several months earlier and with whom I’d enjoyed some correspondence, to ask if he could get me a ticket that might put me closer to the stage. Seventy-two hours later, I was walking down a grassy hillside from overflow parking at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, with the inspiring tang of marijuana smoke in the air and the deeply satisfying vision of young and old hippies and bedraggled Vietnam vets and their wives and girlfriends and kids, everybody congregating around their cars and minivans and warming their conversations over small hibachis and beer coolers and Bic lighters.
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