Mad in America
It is a queer fact, indeed, that none of the most outspoken and anti-authoritarian radicals in this country are under 65 years old.
Queer because radicalism and the job of saying f-you! to the bureaucratic versions of Mom and Dad have traditionally fallen to much younger men and women, who, as they approach early adulthood, are suddenly outraged to find how disinterested the dominant culture is in their ideals and their passions and their deep desire to live, perhaps even raise a family, in a saner society.
One thinks of Voltaire, Rimbaud, Phil Ochs, the young Picasso, the Beats, the yippies, the hippies, the Panthers, Warhol’s Factory riffraff, the Gen X, Y and Z-ers, that sort of thing. One doesn’t typically think of somebody who might smell faintly of mothballs and Metamucil or somebody who is likely to loose his teeth in a sneeze or who might proclaim loudly and repeatedly that Velcro, microwave ovens and cable television are newfangled and faddish and cockamamie.
However, when Howard Zinn died last year at 87 there was something about the silencing of his voice that seemed unfair and tragic. How could a spirit that was so intellectually vibrant and forward-thinking and balls-to-the-wall energetic die, literally, of old age? It was like reading the impossible headline: James Dean Dies in Porsche 550 Spyder at Age 91.
In fact, losing Zinn only compounded the loss, over the last decade, of fellow radicals such as Vonnegut and Mailer and Terkel and Said, whose interpretations of the day’s events and predictions of future woes were often so relentlessly honest and thought-provoking and dead-on that our society can only become markedly less provocative and decidedly less thoughtful and increasingly more ill-prepared for whatever comes without them being here. Am I wrong? You tell me: Who are the public intellectuals whose social commentary and wry observations and very public self-examinations can be relied upon to advance the species and to deepen our collective and happy misunderstanding of why we’re all here? Who will be left once Chomsky and Sahl and Vidal and Ali and Allen and Lapham and Scheer and Krassner and Hitchens and Hedges disappear?
I can’t think of anybody. …
In fact, when one considers the unreaction from the so-called radical wing of the anti-establishmentarianism movement in this country to the current Egyptian civil unrest — not to mention to the Kyrgyzstan riots in April and the Freedom Flotilla massacre in May and the G-8 and G-20 protests in Ontario in June and the massive protests in Spain, Belgium, Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Slovenia and Lithuania against austerity measures in September and the huge demonstrations in France over pensions in October and the continuing Tunisian revolution that began in December — there appears to be no reason to believe that the world-famous, democracy-championing, radically confident and self-aggrandizing American Dream, like any other dream, can be substantiated outside of sleep. Awake, we snore. (And before you embarrass yourself by bringing up the vast number of people who attended both Glenn Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor and Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, you have to recognize that these were show business events designed to attract spectators, not participants, with both being exactly as significant to the preservation of our nation’s honor and sanity as a NASCAR race.)
How else to explain how little impact the publication of this generation’s Pentagon Papers seems to be having on the American public? At least with the 1971 Daniel Ellsberg version—which was 83,000 pages shorter than WikiLeaks’ Afghan War Diary, released in July, and 393,000 pages shorter than the Iraq War Logs, also released by WikiLeaks, in October—there existed an anti-war movement that was massive, mobilized and pissed off and understood the significance of such damning documentation.
What do we have now? An anti-war movement that is so gutless and so savagely unimaginative that, rather than gaining purpose and momentum in the face of our government’s ever-increasing disdain for peace in the Middle East, it has proved itself to be too lazy, even too cowardly, to face down the very disease of oligarchy that it had concocted itself to cure. When did the American version of a bleeding-heart-radical-hell-raiser become the equivalent of a vegetarian between meals of animal flesh, no more likely to dedicate his life to the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. than a devotee of the “Twilight” series would be to drinking actual blood and living forever?
By way of example, I once went to a MoveOn rally mounted in protest of George W. Bush’s veto of a 2007 bill hoping to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and experienced what came to represent the quintessential reason why I continue to worry about the future of the republic.
Here’s what happened.
I arrived at the train station in L.A. at 5:25, five minutes before the demonstration was officially set to begin, a candlelit vigil I was told, and I found a seat on the wide lip of an enormous concrete planter on the landing where an underground train station emptied beneath a huge orange awning the size of a band shell at street level. Ten feet away from me stood two MoveOn organizers trying to recruit a pair of Awake! Jesus freaks into the protest, imploring them to put down their magazines and to pick up one of the 50 stacked cardboard signs leaning against an adjacent planter and to spend the next few hours standing curbside with it.
Mimicking the uncomfortable no thank you shown to them several thousand times a day, the Jesus freaks moved on, leaving a total of four people to begin the event. Sighing audibly, the protesters grabbed their baffling signs — HONK FOR KIDS, BE A VETO BANDIDO, WE THE PEOPLE JUST SAY NO and an indecipherable one that was on a piece of dress shirt cardboard no bigger than a standard piece of typing paper with lettering that had been drawn with a ballpoint pen — and shuffled over to where the cars were whizzing by as impenetrable as 5,000-pound seeds in pursuit of soil.
In 20 minutes the mob of activists had swelled to seven people, two of whom were under 5 years old, one of them crying in her stroller because she’d been swatted for chewing on her sign. Thirty feet beyond the seven was a MoveOn photographer who was taking pictures of the demonstration, his shutter snapping just at the moment when somewhere around a hundred bone-tired commuters would exit the train station and crowd around the sign holders to wait for the walking green at the enormous crosswalk before continuing their commute on the other side of the road at the bus station. Then the light would change, the camera would be recapped and the hoard, comprised of faces that looked as if the sign carriers were oozing something that might stain their clothes, would slide away from the minuscule number of protesters like sand being poured from a public ashtray around gum wads anchored where they stood.
“Get out of our way! Get out of our way!” hollered a man with widely spaced corn kernels for teeth and a limp severe enough to require airplane arms to help him keep his balance. He was headed toward the protesters, in the opposite direction of the commuters, and had noticed the MoveOn folks with their signs and assumed the hippies had taken over the world and he was speaking for all who hadn’t yet been corrupted by empathy and optimism. “Anti-American sons-a-bitches!” he spat, on his way home, I guessed, to piss in the sink and to slurp dinner from the fistful of ketchup packets that he’d been warming over in his pocket since midafternoon, the notes that make up the refrain from “God Bless America” circling round and round inside his head like vultures.
Just before the demonstration broke up a little more than an hour after it started (it was never dark enough for candles or quite bright enough for camaraderie), I watched as one of the remaining three protesters left his curbside position for a daring final attempt to incite some support for the humanism that he and his comrades were hoping to stir in defiance of Bush’s veto. Walking across the plaza with the deliberation of Jesus Christ moving toward the comfort of his cross, the man stopped at the top of the escalator leading up from the train platform below and hoisted his gigantic “HONK FOR HEALTHY KIDS” sign above his head, confident that he’d be impossible for the unwashed masses emerging from the underground to miss.
He stood there for 15 minutes unable to get a single honk out of anybody, his face souring and his eyes communicating a real disdain for humanity’s inability to see what was right in front it.