gall and gumption

Friday, March 25, 2005

A Weakness

I must say I like it when politics gets grotesque. If I had a student in a writing class who handed a story in with a character like Tom DeLay in it, I'd probably say that this character was too clownishly vicious to be believable. Ah well I'm older now.

So I have been enjoying the Terry Schiavo repub theatrics as much as I enjoyed the Gannon/Guckert disclosures. I did feast on those. I know that some little bit of thrill will subside out of my life when these ghouls finish howling over this poor woman's remains.

Has this sort of bizarritude occurred regularly all along and I was just not paying attention all these years, or are we in a new era of freaks? I just don't know. I seem to remember long dull stretches when nothing very interesting happend. But then I have read books of the history of, say, the 70s and 80s in Los Angeles, a time when I was in Santa Barbara, and I know that a lot of weirdness was taking place there but I wasn't paying attention even though I read the Los Angeles Times every day. And the Times did a pretty good job of delivering the news.

I remember there was a fuss about school busing in Los Angeles. I had a roommate from Beverly Hills who was against busing, and we would have long arguments about it. I remember that when I arrived in California in 1977 the big discussion was Proposition 13, for which California's schoolchildren, public libraries and public services are still paying and paying. What I lacked then, being so newly arrived in the U.S., was a sense of what was behind the arguments against school segregation and a lot of smaller battles that were being fought in California that did a lot to transform its economic culture. I certainly wasn't in a position to see all that. At that time I didn't know who was a liberal and who wasn't; these intramural distinctions meant nothing to me. I think a lot of the difficulty I had was owing to this complete ignorance and indifference to the cultural tensions that were already dividing the students at UCSB in my first year there. When I look back at all that it seems that everybody was pretty horrible -- including me.

I'd say it took me much longer to get used to American social attitudes than I would ever have anticipated. A good 15 years at least. I mean I was lucky in having fallen very early into this rather sheltered enclave of very serious literary and creative people who were not terribly interested in mass culture or its political content. We were too busy with our own interests, really. Even when I hung out with Jervey in South Central Los Angeles I did so feeling very much a sense of my own foreignness. Jervey had grown up there, his brothers' friends were still hanging out on the corner and getting stoned on various substances, but he was sort of becoming a foreigner in that world because he was determined to get out of it and not to live on its terms. So even when we would sit on Mrs. Tervalon's porch in the middle of the night with Googie and various other characters we weren't IN it in the same way.

So it was slow, learning American language, by which I mean what people mean when they say things but they don't say the thing they mean they say something else and they know you'll get it. For most of my life here, I didn't get it. Now, sometimes, I get it. Get what? Well I guess something called the culture. I don't speak the lingo exactly, but then I don't speak any Caribbean dialects either even though I grew up there. But I do understand them, even the thickest ones, as long as they are based in English that is, I'm lost with the various French Creoles and Papamento but if it is an English dialect I can follow it just fine. With American dialects (American Euphemism) I have only learned in the last 10 years or so and to tell you the truth a lot of the time I would rather not know.

So one of the things about American language that I don't quite get is described in the linked piece by Frank Rich, who I now read religiously (if you'll pardon the expression) each week.

Like many Americans, I suspect, I tried to picture how I would have reacted if a bunch of smarmy, camera-seeking politicians came anywhere near a hospital room where my own relative was hooked up to life support. I imagined summoning the Clint Eastwood of "Dirty Harry," not "Million Dollar Baby." But before my fantasy could get very far, star politicians with the most to gain from playing the God card started hatching stunts whose extravagant shamelessness could upstage any humble reverie of my own.

Senator Bill Frist, the Harvard-educated heart surgeon with presidential aspirations, announced that watching videos of Ms. Schiavo had persuaded him that her doctors in Florida were mistaken about her vegetative state - a remarkable diagnosis given that he had not only failed to examine the patient ostensibly under his care but has no expertise in the medical specialty, neurology, relevant to her case. No less audacious was Tom DeLay, last seen on "60 Minutes" a few weeks ago deflecting Lesley Stahl's questions about his proximity to allegedly criminal fund-raising by saying he would talk only about children stranded by the tsunami. Those kids were quickly forgotten as he hitched his own political rehabilitation to a brain-damaged patient's feeding tube. Adopting a prayerful tone, the former exterminator from Sugar Land, Tex., took it upon himself to instruct "millions of people praying around the world this Palm Sunday weekend" to "not be afraid."

A bit more paste...

These theatrics were foretold. Culture is often a more reliable prophecy than religion of where the country is going, and our culture has been screaming its theocratic inclinations for months now. The anti-indecency campaign, already a roaring success, has just yielded a new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Kevin J. Martin, who had been endorsed by the Parents Television Council and other avatars of the religious right. The push for the sanctity of marriage (or all marriages except Terri and Michael Schiavo's) has led to the banishment of lesbian moms on public television. The Armageddon-fueled worldview of the "Left Behind" books extends its spell by the day, soon to surface in a new NBC prime-time mini-series, "Revelations," being sold with the slogan "The End is Near."

All this is happening while polls consistently show that at most a fifth of the country subscribes to the religious views of those in the Republican base whom even George Will, speaking last Sunday on ABC's "This Week," acknowledged may be considered "extremists." In that famous Election Day exit poll, "moral values" voters amounted to only 22 percent. Similarly, an ABC News survey last weekend found that only 27 percent of Americans thought it was "appropriate" for Congress to "get involved" in the Schiavo case and only 16 percent said it would want to be kept alive in her condition. But a majority of American colonists didn't believe in witches during the Salem trials either - any more than the Taliban reflected the views of a majority of Afghans. At a certain point - and we seem to be at that point - fear takes over, allowing a mob to bully the majority over the short term. (Of course, if you believe the end is near, there is no long term.)


This sort of idiocy is like a recurrent malady of American life. It breaks out large and small. Think of all those teenagers burning their Beatles albums, this combination of hysteria and threatening, of people stomping on other people's faces with hobnailed boots in their mad indecorous scramble for the moral high ground which always turns out to be, in the end, a rather low and boggy place, someplace downhill and downwind of the stables.

I mean, this man who got himself and two of his children arrested for trying to take a drink of water to Terry Schiavo. Wolcott mentioned them. What, does that make the guy moral now? She can't drink the water. She will never drink that water. If he managed to get in there and give her the water his reward would be to watch her choke to death on it. How is it that ALL morality comes to be suddenly focused into this one pointless gesture? And why is it, given all the circumstances that Rich describes in his article (the self-censoring media, the attacks on evolution etc.), so hard to resist such a bunch of zanies. It is as if at some level everybody is afraid to challenge their specious morality. It is a fear of challenging the assertion, "If you are against the feeding tube, you are against life."

Well, my question is this: Why does the majority allow itself to be bullied? How hard can it be to show that this is nonsense, to show, moreover, that it is vicious and destructive nonsense?

These people never come out with all their praying and shivering and placards in behalf of people who can speak for themselves. Their associates propose to kill judges, who have working brains, on behalf of a woman who has no brain. They kill doctors on behalf of fetuses. Why do they favor pathetic insentient lumps of flesh over conscious humans in their so-called morality? There isn't any morality in it. The one good thing about this media sidewhow is that the Culture of Life folks are so sure of their own righteousness that they are not even bothering to hide their true intentions; their scorn for the rule of law, their ignorance of the facts of the case, their duplicity and gullibility are all there on the record. They can be seen for what they are.

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