Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Thanks to Steven Leech for the Laura Bush/Poetry story, which I missed at the time, and which is instructive-- in microcosm it was just yet one more ugly american assumption that the rest of the world is no more than a classroom of sing-along children (it's a small world after all, it's a...), and that implication is the lie. A lie that this time around got revealed. Propaganda by gently coerced default.
Phil Bannowsky touches this base as well. What's wrong with an overt message in art? Is the problem fundamental, or just a slippery slope issue wherein the message might overwhelm the medium and hammer us where a magic wand might weild more savvy weight? From another angle, is it even possible to open your mouth and not advertise? Is there a love-poem in creation that doesn't advertize me or mine above others in the marketplace of life?
I have never deliberately been a "political" poet in the sense of instrumentally serving a specific organized cause, but I have also never tried not to be, understanding that truth is not something that fits in a box. Or, to put it the other way around, if it does fit in a box, it's probably not the truth-- which is why art for art's sake is probably a lie, since it chooses to live in a box. And so, (at long last) I vote for advertising, provided it is honest. It is simply physically impossible at any moment to see the universe except from one place instead of from all the others. That doesn't mean the truth will sell or not hurt. It just means that if you don't want to live under a box-top, but under the sky, you've got to accept the weather, rain or shine.
Monday, April 19, 2010
Last week I found myself re-reading The Turner Diaries after almost 25 years. I can't say I meant to. Something about the more extreme Tea Party rhetoric brought it to mind. And the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombings is this month. I just wanted to check on a few quotes I thought I remembered and wound up reading the whole thing. Not the two most productive hours of my life, that's for sure.
The book was pretty much as I remembered it. (Although the electronic version I first started reading was heavily abridged, with some of the more detailed descriptions of illegal activity, such as the bombing of an FBI building, removed.) As with a lot of propaganda, Andrew Macdonald’s (aka William Pierce) writing is clunky and stilted. However, it gets almost gleefully gory towards the end when describing scenes of mass genocide. I still think the Diaries contains the most hateful passage in American letters: Earl Turner's fictional entry for August 1, 1993, the “Day of the Rope”, which relates in stomach churning detail the mass hangings of so-called “race criminals” in Los Angeles.
The Turner Diaries was written in the late 70’s and, for the most part, seems amazingly dated. Only two groups fuel Earl Turner’s righteous anger: Jews, who in spite of their inferior status, somehow manage to control everything from the banks to the dreaded Equality Police and Blacks, who function as their incompetent subhuman henchmen. There's only a passing mention of illegal immigrants, homosexuals and feminists. The mass media mostly ignore Earl Turner and his fellow guerilla patriots until its too late. There's no equivalent of the talk radio echo chamber or Fox News to stoke the fires and give free publicity.
On the other hand: there are plenty of screeds about Second Amendment Rights. In fact, it is the fictional Gun Raids of 1989 that precipitate Earl Turner’s descent into crime and terrorism.
Once again I wondered just what was it about this hastily written book that inspired so many people to try to live it, often with tragic consequences. After all, it’s only words — and not particularly eloquent ones at that.
I have a theory about evil. I believe we all have the capacity for it; it rests in us like some sleeper virus waiting for a trigger. In most of us, it stays asleep a good part of the time. Thankfully, very few of us are born without any capacity to resist it.
But sometimes our resistance falters, the virus stirs and begins to multiply. One of the things that can drop our resistance in a heartbeat is a life-changing trauma. For Earl Turner, it’s the raid on his apartment and his subsequent arrest. The arrest leads to the loss of his job and his stable, ordinary life as an electrical engineer with latent racist tendencies. For a while he is able to coast, taking contracting jobs with some local electronics firms, but soon his deepening involvement with the racist underground leads him to a place where he’s poised to pass the point of no return.
“Now everything is chaotic and uncertain,” he writes. “When I think about the future, I become depressed. It’s impossible to know what will happen, but it’s certain that I’ll never be able to go back to the quiet, orderly kind of life I had before.”
In other words, Earl Turner has lost his center and realizes he’s in danger of losing his sanity. He commits to writing the diary to regain his psychological footing, but also to rationalize the evil he’s done so far, to become “reconciled” to his new way of life. This fateful decision to reconcile allows the evil in Turner to really blossom. With each violent act, his tolerance for atrocity grows, until he becomes a person who can shoot people in cold blood and find solace in the death of thousands.
Our nation has gone through several life-changing traumas in this young century. The first, of course, was 9-11. What? You mean we’re not invincible? This was followed quickly by the collapse of Enron and WorldCom. You mean I can work my whole life, be a loyal employee and all, and lose everything in a day? Then, Katrina. We let a city drown while the whole world watched? And finally the housing bubble burst, which eventually led to the Great Recession we’re in now. That whole American Dream thing was one big lie?
To add to all the heartache, there is the sinking feeling things will never truly go back to the way they were. We can try to patch things up, but we all know they really won't be fixed. The changes needed now are so far outside of our consensus thinking that when we try to imagine the future, all we can see is a black hole.
There are plenty of people in this country who are hurting and looking for a way to quiet their pain. Some will merely squelch it with antidepressants; others will start looking for someone or something to blame. Maybe it’s the Socialist Republic of Obama bin Biden. Maybe it’s all those illegal immigrants who stubbornly refuse to speak English. Maybe it’s Obamacare. Maybe a few of them will listen to Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck and be inspired to “do something” — or, God forbid, stumble on a link to the online version of The Turner Diaries and plan to blow something up. They say an idle mind is the devil’s workshop, but so is a shattered heart.
Earl Turner made a personal decision to descend into evil, but he never would have gotten that far without his fellow racist warriors to egg him on. Words have power — and when people are hurt, vulnerable and standing at the crossroads that power is infinitely multiplied.
Those who use violent or hateful language to “fire up the base” might as well be playing Russian Roulette. Most of the time you’ll escape with your life. But then again: there’s always that chance you’ll get the bullet.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
It’s official. Day 8 of the series 24 is going to be its last. The show’s ratings have dropped significantly among its key demographic (18-24); several key actors’ contracts are about to expire and the show’s writers and producers can’t come up with a compelling story arc for Day 9. Might as well end the show in good form rather than let it limp into irrelevance like the X-files. There are plans for a 24 movie sometime in the nebulous future, but when the last hour airs in May, for all practical purposes, 24 is done.
I came to 24 late in the game (Day 5) and watched the series inside out, catching up on earlier seasons by renting DVDs and downloading the occasional discounted episode from iTunes. My main reason for watching was to have something to talk about with my co-workers, the majority of which were rabid fans of the show. I continued watching (long after many of my colleagues had stopped) to see how the show’s writers would deal with a most difficult creative dilemma.
You see, until 2 seasons ago, 24 relied extensively on torture as a dramatic device. Then the infamous Abu Ghraib photos appeared. Suddenly, as many as two torture scenes per 43 minute episode didn’t look so good — especially since 24 was exported around the world. At one point officials from the US Army met with producers of the show and asked that they tone it down.
Torture in 24 land was soft core violence porn that had very little to do with torture in reality. Bad guys favored the low-tech bloodier forms: battery acid, pulling out of finger and toenails, sawing off of extremities. Good guys were partial to the high-tech stuff — designer drugs that produced mind-numbing (and tongue-loosening) pain and psychological humiliation — but if the situation demanded it, they could pull off the low-tech stuff as well as any master villain.
Torture in 24 was 100% effective; it always produced actionable intelligence that saved many lives. And while 24’s super agent Jack Bauer didn’t enjoy being cruel, he rationalized it as a necessary evil. After all, he was fighting a war.
So here was the writers’ challenge: to keep the show’s trademark tinderbox high tension while giving Jack Bauer more than a comic book conscience. Oh yes, and to find another device to keep viewers on the edge of their seats.
The more thoughtful Jack Bauer first appeared in a special episode entitled Redemption which aired after a long hiatus due to the writers’ strike. In this episode Bauer is a fugitive hiding out at his friend’s orphanage and school in an African country that resembles a combination of Sierra Leone and Rwanda.
Jack is haunted by his past deeds of barbarous heroism and is a man with nothing important left to lose. His wife was killed long ago; his evil father and brother are dead and the latest love of his life lies catatonic in a bedroom in her father’s house. His daughter has stopped talking to him because he is a death magnet. And: by this time, Bauer has been a victim of torture. A couple seasons back he was tortured at the hands of the Chinese.
Someone arrives at the orphanage to serve Jack with a subpoena to appear before a Congressional committee. Bauer’s about to pack his bags and be on the road again when suddenly it looks like the orphanage might be in danger. The old Jack springs into action to save the children, but ultimately to accomplish that end, he has to give himself up to authorities.
The fan reaction, judging from various discussion boards, was mixed. While there was enough ass-kicking, explosions and car chases to please some people, and others were just glad Jack Bauer had returned, it unnerved some fans to be presented with a hero with doubts about his mission.
The following season had the requisite number of explosions, gunfights and terrorists, but it also featured storylines about the legality and morality of torture, questionable methods of investigation such as racial and religious profiling and the outsourcing of military operations to private security firms. Jack is exposed to a deadly designer virus and in one climatic scene near the end of the season, actually asks a Muslim cleric for absolution when it looks like death is near.
Fan reaction was uneven at best. A big complaint was that the show had gotten too preachy and political (as if it wasn’t political before) and that Jack had gotten wimpy. Even a terminally ill Jack would have been G.I. Joe to the end.
I thought last season was okay for what it was. Some of the dialog addressing hot potato topics was clunky, but then again the show was never known for its snappy wit. Besides: how subtle can you be when your main character is either shouting or speaking in a hoarse whisper? Sometimes the medium limits the message and you write yourself into a corner. I doubt I could have done better.
Whatever you may think of 24, if indeed you think about it at all, it does serve a purpose. Since we are not a nation of deep readers, TV is how most of us deal with national trauma. Something horrible happens and then the made for TV movie appears. You ease into your favorite couch, grab the remote, watch, process and move on.
24 is a 9-11 “do-over” show. (The Unit was another shorter-lived example.) It presents a world that is both more evolved and far more dangerous than our own. 24 has had two Black presidents and one woman president and is about to broker a peace deal with a country that closely resembles Iran. (Although after Monday’s episode, that deal might have been shot to hell.) However, there’s also been a mushroom cloud over LA. But Jack always thwarts the terrorists, the tech comes online in the nick of time and the millennium changing disasters are always averted. If only it were true.
Perhaps the fact 24 has lost its mojo means we no longer have as strong a need to relive, repackage and revise 9-11. Maybe we are finally getting closer to that time when we can rise from our easy chairs, gather up our grief and anger and move on.
Sunday, April 4, 2010
For those of us who were introduced to the literary life during those scary years of the Cold War, on the cusp of the counter culture with its anti-Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movements, and all those other progressive movements which now define the national dialogue, we have been witness not to a New Morning in America but to an American nightmare. Its darkest time was in those days and weeks and months that followed the events of September 11th. Not only was the Iraq War the wrong war fought for essentially no reason, since nothing was found, but also because of the Bush's Administration's assault on our Constitutional protections. Lies had fed the crest of mass hysteria headlong into one big bad bill to pay and a pack of angry nations.
While that hysteria was being whipped to a froth, cooler heads prevailed among poets and others who lived the literary life. Is it any wonder? Even though we may lead the literary life, that doesn’t mean we don’t see through all their crap. And we don’t like being co-opted either, which is what Laura Bush, the First Lady, attempted to do on the eve of the Iraq War. Let me refresh some memories.
For February 2003, Mrs. Bush attempted to convene a White House symposium of poets and literati on Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes. Invitations went out and in return poets everywhere responded with anti-war poems. Her symposium was canceled. This is not the end of the story.
On February 17, 2003, during a blizzard, at the Lincoln Center in New York City, two thousand people convened for a reading. The event was billed as “Poems Not Fit For the White House” and its warning was of the consequences of the Bush Administration’s headlong rush to war. You’d be surprised who showed up.
Among those poets not particularly known to involve themselves or their work with a lot of political or even social issues were Sam Hamill, Sharon Olds, and a 97-year old Stanley Kunitz, who delivered one of the more moving poems presented during the event. Some poets couldn’t make the event because of the snowstorm and had others read for them. For example, Ellen McLaughlin read for Robert Pinsky, Kathleen Chalfant read for C.K. Williams, the actor Eli Wallach read for Robert Creeley, Wallace Shawn read for Mark Strand, and André Gregory read for W. S. Merwin. Arthur Miller, whose 1953 play The Crucible was an allegory of Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch-hunt of suspected subversives throughout the early 1950s, was a participant. Anne Waldman, in keeping with the theme originally proposed by Laura Bush, read poems by Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Langston Hughes, as well as her own poem “War Crime.”
The writing of poetry is not an “either/or” proposition. Just because a poet may also be an activist, or maybe only a proponent of a cause, does not make that poet incapable of writing poetry that is closer to writing poetry merely for the sake of poetry. Laura Bush evidently took it for granted that poets were either, at best, apolitical or, at least, without a conscience. She may have been surprised that such great crafters of poetry like W. S. Merwin and Stanley Kunitz also thought about issues crucial to the welfare of our national community.
Personally, I’ve been accused of using literature as propaganda. At times, I’ve thought this accusation to be unfair, because I had only felt the need to expose something important going on in the environment around us that needed exposing. I’ve always been upset when a good poet disassociated him or herself from a project with which I was involved because we weren’t restricting our endeavors to writing or promoting poetry only for poetry’s sake. A good poet can write both kinds of poetry within this kind of imposed dichotomy. And a good poet should never be afraid to let his or her conscience show, especially when it could benefit the welfare of all those we care about during times of crisis. Poetry does not only matter to the individual poet and his or her devotees. The real value of poetry is that it should matter to us all.