Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The past is never dead. It's not even past

Lots of ideas bouncing around in my head right now, the result (as usual) of things I've been reading and watching, which all seem to converge in strange ways.

Allow me to explain.

I've railed time and again about how much of a diseased cur Richard M. Nixon was and how his terrible legacy haunts our republic in body, mind and spirit. Today, in the wake of the Blagojevich freakshow, driftglass re-runs Hunter S. Thompson's awesome eulogy of Nixon, someone Blago evidently admires. Here's a taste:
If the right people had been in charge of Nixon's funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.

These are harsh words for a man only recently canonized by President Clinton and my old friend George McGovern--but I have written worse things about Nixon, many times, and the record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.

He was utterly without ethics or morals or any bedrock sense of decency. Nobody trusted him--except maybe the Stalinist Chinese, and honest historians will remember him mainly as a rat who kept scrambling to get back on the ship.

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism--which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

Nixon's spirit will be with us for the rest of our lives--whether you're me or Bill Clinton or you or Kurt Cobain or Bishop Tutu or Keith Richards or Amy Fisher or Boris Yeltsin's daughter or your fiancee's 16-year-old beer-drunk brother with his braided goatee and his whole life like a thundercloud out in front of him. This is not a generational thing. You don't even have to know who Richard Nixon was to be a victim of his ugly, Nazi spirit.

He has poisoned our water forever. Nixon will be remembered as a classic case of a smart man shitting in his own nest. But he also shit in our nests, and that was the crime that history will burn on his memory like a brand. By disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream.

So Nixon's toxic legacy pervades the smoldering wreckage of our once great nation lying all around us now, a slow-motion disaster we've watched happen since the ascension of the snake-oil salesman from California, which tracks with my recent conclusion of the elegaic HBO series "The Wire." Saint Ronnie bequeathed unto us the constitution-shredding War on Drugs, and that war has ruined our cities, as intended. "The Wire" is, over five seasons, a kind of extended autopsy of the remnants of Baltimore, Maryland. The clash between police and the inner-city drug trade are the jumping-off point for an unflinching examination of the whole city's degeneration, from the corruption and violence in the police department to the lasting damage of generations of neglect of the city's poor and helpless to the ugly wheeling and dealing in her courts to those trying to survive amid a ruined industrial base or her failing schools to the "sausage-making" of big-city politics to the leveraged soul of it's once-proud newspaper, the home of H.L. Mencken: The Baltimore Sun, while never shrinking from the fundamental issues of race and class that lie at the secret heart of the American war on her cities. No American city, between five seasons of "The Wire" and seven of "Homicide: Life on the Streets," has ever been more thoroughly magisterially depicted warts and all. Baltimore is a perfect symbol for everything America has done wrong with her cities since World War Two.

We've never been a nation of cities. From our birth over two centuries ago, America has been conflicted about the role of cities in the life of a nation, from the epic struggle between Jefferson and Hamilton to define us as agrarian and rural or industrial and urban right up to today, with our red states and blue states. You know, patriots versus latte-sippers.

Not for us is the idea that a nation's great cities embody the soul of its people: Paris, London, Moscow, Prague, Rome, New Delhi, Athens, Cairo, Tokyo. Each city is evocative of its host nation, and it is no accident that each is the seat of government.

What else is Washington D.C. but a sort of grand college campus structured around the seasonal influx and evacuation of an ever-changing cast of characters with an ever-changing set of agendas - few of which circumscribe the ongoing needs of The District, apart from the bureacrats who are eternal. What else is New York City - the largest city in the world that is not also some seat of government - but a sprawling laboratory built for the sole and unrestrained purpose of making money, all other arenas of achievement pursued within its five boroughs however florid or grandiose springing from that initial formative commandment. We were never to be what Paris or London or Rome were in their respective hey-days, the unquestioned beating heart of The Empire where all things French or English or, well, Roman were legislated, elevated, celebrated and defended above all others. Had New York remained the nation's capital, perhaps we would have an American Paris or an American London, but History has left such an epic metropolis only to our dreams.

Where shall a traveler look to see the distilled essence of our country? Our regional differences belie any such simple answer, which gets to the heart of the continuing conflict in Washington D.C.. Washington may be our capital city, named after our greatest general, but it is a bloodlessly administrative beehive jealous that the very names of Boston and Philadelphia seem embued with the symbolism of our Glorious Revolution, while New York and Los Angeles (Hollywood) are our cultural megaphones to the world and Las Vegas is our national id made manifest in the scorching western desert.

Where shall a traveler look? The answer is, I think, nowhere and that gets to the core of not only our problems in Washington but to the core of our uniquely American condition. The fact that Baltimore has been allowed to fail is of a piece with the failure of Detroit or Buffalo or Pittsburgh or the attempted shivving of New York City in the 1970's. Digby calls it tribalism, and I think that is a fair assessment of what we of late call Red State/Blue State because it isn't just regionalism or race or class or religion or musical preference, although all of those are factors. It is about some manner of amorphous cultural identity, of tendencies, of elective affinities. The most vocal of the proponents of this form of social identification can't rightly say what or whom is in any of these groups, but they sure as shit can tell you who and what isn't. Right now, we are organized along the lines of the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe, though the clutural cleavages embodied in that formulation date back to before the Revolution, and though we can't fully and objectively list the pre-req's for membership in either tribe, the grounds for rejection are easily intuited: Pat Robertson is not in the Blue Tribe and Barbra Streisand is not in the Red.

The most sickening part of all this stupidity for me is that is so fucking artificial. I don't mean the underlying chasms in our culture - those are there and they are real and often dangerous, perhaps mortally - but the pervasiveness and intensity of the divides are wholly artifical. Which brings me back to Nixon. It is all about the ginned-up controversies and manufactured wedge-issues that drove that goddamned Southern Strategy.

After Barry Goldwater damaged the foundations of our American consensus in '64, Nixon slithered into power through the widening cracks, a one-man wedge-issue utterly without conscience in exploiting the nastiest corners of the American psyche to get and keep votes in a decade that amounted to one long, sustained national family screaming match. His tactics nor his ruthless application of them were not new, but his success their use and the failure to adequately punish all bad actors upon discovery of the scope of his crimes has made everything since fruit of the poisonous tree. The GOP hegemony that lasted from November of 1968 until November of 2006 was built on Nixonian lies, muscle, manpower and mythology. No matter how important the Frost/Nixon interviews may have seemed at the time and ever since - now in the form of a hit Broadway play and new Ron Howard movie! - the fact that Nixon was not sent to prison like the common criminal he was, followed by all of his knowledgable co-conspirators, all on the pretext of protecting the dignity of the office and putting the past behind us for the good of the nation, allowed the Nixon cancer to metastasize until it has now spread throughout and consumed our whole body politic. Two days ago, Darth "The Big Dick" Cheney, unreconstructed Nixonite toady, has essentially dared President-elect Obama and the Democratic Congress to prosecute him for war crimes. We all know he won't and they won't and that is, in some perverse way, the more perfect coda than even Sarah "Moose-alini" Palin here at the bitter end of Nixon's GOP: the bad guys got all the money and rode off into the sunset while flipping the bird, roll credits.

And they did it with those artificial cultural issues, the chips on regional shoulders, the demonization of "Blue" places like cities, rife as they are with crime and negros and all those queers and snooty liberals and their dangerous "ideas". Baltimore as depicted in "The Wire" is perfect as neither a northern city punished by the toothless goobers for being on the winning side of The Civil War, nor a southern city (Maryland was a slave state, but did not secede) re-born as a sprawling, shiny, disorganized Sun Belt suburban metro-area non-city wasteland. It is merely an old, dirty, failing city - more of a overlarge town, really - choked to death by the ascension of a cultural hostility to the very idea of people gathering in cities. If my reference to our War Between the States seems too much of an historical call-back, I remind you that the great William Faulkner of Mississippi, a slave state that seceded if I recall correctly, once wrote "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

As a final point, our civil war has also been very much on my mind these days because I am re-watching Ken Burns' transcendant "The Civil War," a documentary so well made that it ceases to be a mere historical documentary and instead rises to the level of art. In so watching this magisterial work, I am reminded of our last president from Illinois and the challenges he faced. Digby recently touched on this, almost spooky in the timing as I began re-watching "The Civil War" on the same day she wrote about some Southern "partriots" who continue to deny that Lincoln was a great president and instead still consider him a hypocritical dictator and criminal. I leave the final analysis to Digby:

Yesterday, today and tomorrow:
Where Lincoln is concerned, no such schism exists. He is "considered by both historians and ordinary Americans to have been the greatest American president," says the taxpayer-supported website of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. Oh, really? Tell that to Bragdon Bowling, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He won't be lighting any candles for Abraham Lincoln on Feb. 12.

"Lincoln is responsible for the devastation of the founding principles of our country, and you can lay 600,000 bodies at his feet, the casualties of a totally unnecessary war," Bowling told me. As for the bicentennial, "It's just a continuation of the Lincoln myth-making paid for with public dollars."

Bowling sounds like an outlier crank, but south of the Mason-Dixon line his views aren't particularly radical. His anti-Lincoln line springs partly from popular culture, and partly from academic scholarship. In the marketplace of ideas the Lincoln-o-phobes lack the throw weight of, say, David Herbert Donald (of Lincoln, Mass.) or Doris Kearns Goodwin. But they are there, for those who want to hear them.

What's their beef? They view Lincoln as a cynical, self-serving politician with no particular aversion to slavery, who precipitated the Civil War, sorry - the War Against Southern Independence - to keep his Republican party in the White House. "It was all about power," Bowling observed at an anti-Lincoln rally in Richmond in 2003. "All so Lincoln and his friends could consolidate their power to tell other people how to live their lives."

Former University of South Carolina historian Clyde Wilson particularly objects to the beatification of the 16th president as a genial, all-knowing Christ figure trapped in a bloody hecatomb not of his own making. Writing on the website of the Abbeville Institute, a think tank for revisionist Southern scholarship, Wilson calls Lincoln "the tender-hearted leader who authorized ruthless terrorism against women and children, refused generous offers of prisoner exchange while declaring medicine a contraband of war, accepted Grant's costly policy of losing three men for every one Confederate killed, was not above keeping his own son out of harm's way, and invited his own fate by clandestinely organizing the attempted assassination of Jefferson Davis."

Wilson sent me a copy of a forthcoming anti-Lincoln article, timed to coincide with the bicentennial. Inter alia, it reserves particular scorn for Boston, whose citizens, Wilson believes, fanned the flames of war to ensure the economic hegemony of the industrial North over the agrarian South. Yankee hypocrisy is a favorite target: "New England shippers got rich in the illegal African slave trade to Cuba and Brazil right up to The War and Bostonians owned slave sugar plantations in Cuba even after The War," he writes.

Wilson even assails Ms. Julia Ward Howe of Mt. Vernon Street, for the "bigotry and blasphemy" of her composition, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." "She subsumes Christ to her secular vengeance and conquest," he explained to me. That's a little rich, I'd say.
I always find it fascinating that the people who want to reach into your bedrooms, hospital rooms and wombs, are always upset about some phantom liberal who supposedly wants to tell them how to live. But it seems to be based upon this odd idea that goes all the way back to the civil war that if a fellow American is not in 100% agreement that they are trying to inflict their "values" on others.

Gay marriage is a good example. Nobody says that people must be gay and must marry others of the same sex. But these people simply can't live and let live. The mere fact that others don't believe as they do is seen as a threat and they seek to stop it. And they always do it while excoriating the other side for "seeking power."

(And the irony of excoriating Lincoln for spilling the blood of hundreds of thousands for immoral reasons in an unnecessary war for the benefit of rich hypocrites who made money arming the enemy is just too rich...)

I don't know that there are very many of these anti-Lincoln cranks out there. But the underlying philosophy is quite pervasive among conservatives, even if they don't trace it to Lincoln and the civil war. I recall another conservative from a few years back who also seemed to believe that the Democrats were only interested in power for its own sake:
By "the left" I'm including almost the entire Democratic Party, you can count the exceptions on your fingers, you can name them, Zell Miller, Joe Lieberman...The whole mainstream of the party is engaged in an effort that is a betrayal of America, what they care about is not winning the war on terror...I don't think they care about the danger to us as Americans or the danger to people in other countries. They care about power.
That's right. Everyone in the Democratic party was engaged in an effort to betray America because they only care about power. Just like Lincoln and the northerners. I suspect that projection is the foundation of this ongoing sense of conservative victimization. They have to quiet the voices in their own heads by shutting up those who disagree with them.

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