December 21, 2003

Re: [Helprin] Bush's Speech [rather verbose]

Posted at 06:07 PM Gems, Newsgroups, Written

This post appears in a much shortened form, and is more tightly edited, at Reciprocal Madness, as part of my eJournal Travelogue. In that form, Reciprocal Madness, appeared as part of the In Honor of the Bravest gallery show mounted by the Aaron Ross Gallery, September 3-30, 2002 in Vancouver, Canada. The final word of the exhibit, the text was printed in full to a single 12 foot long X 11" sheet which hung from the exhibit wall at 6' and ran out several feet onto the gallery floor.

Among the newsgroups and mailing lists I belong to is one devoted to Mark Helprin, one of my favourite authors. While Helprin has written several extraordinary novels, most of which I've loved to dog-eared tatters, he also regularly contributes opinion pieces to the Wall Street Journal. I am often stunned by them, not simply for their right-wing political stance but, most remarkably, the jingoism and unabashed militarism defining them. Shortly after 9-11, I was forced me to re-evaluate his fiction. In the process, I was motivated to speak to larger issues.

Before posting it to the mailing list, just to make certain I was on the right track, I emailed it to another list member for comment.

From: "Patrick Jennings"
To: "Aurora Vanderbosch"
Sent: Friday, September 21, 2001 8:27 PM
Subject: Re: [Helprin] Bush's Speech [rather verbose]

Hi there,

I was thinking of posting the following treatise to the Helprin group. Could you give me your honest opinion? I may have lost my objectivity on this one.
This is largely a polite and well-behaved group. I like that about it. We collectively squirm around the WSJ (Wall Street Journal) stuff Mark Helprin writes, due to its political content, preferring to talk about the fiction. I prefer that too. It's easier to stay polite that way. Fosters sharing and learning. But maybe this is one of the things that changed last week. Maybe we have to stop looking the other way. Like it or not, editorialising is Helprin's only voice right now. I'm not willing to separate that voice from the more lyrical, poetic one in his fiction any longer, and simply forgive him his politics. I'm expecting some heat for what follows.

I imagine some may take this as a personal attack. Let me assure you all that it is not directed at anyone, but at the whole thing. Everything that's happened since 9/11/01. The hours of television and radio and pages of newspaper. Particularly there is Helprin's WSJ editorial of last week, and today's little snippet of Bush.

Like other people on this list, I write. I write not simply for the joy of it, like a deep breath of spring air, but out of necessity, the steady breath that keeps me going. Make no mistake, this piece is 'written,' and not with a voice I use often. It allowed the option to be outrageously unsubtle.

I suppose I could have written it in such a way that it may have been more gentle. Whimsey does come across as sarcasm. But it's hard to be serious when all around you see and hear madness repeated after itself. I try to make a joke of it. But it's no joke. I try to satirize, but satire depends on taking what is normal and wringing the absurd out of it for all to see. But if we are already mired in the absurd, what is a satirist to do? How much more absurdity could I wring out of this? Normal ended for us last week. We've been plunged into the normal kind of terror the rest of the world has been familiar with for decades. The whole thing is so bizarre, so unimaginable, that I chose a voice of utter incredulity, a stance of "You've got to be kidding!"

I do apologize in advance for one thing: my failure of concinnity. Anyway, here goes.


> From Bush's speech:
> "We have seen their kind before. They're the heirs of all the
> murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life
> to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the
> will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and
> totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where
> it ends in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies."
> Worthy of Helprin?

Maybe my memories are a bit sketchy. But wasn't it back in the early '80s another President was referring to these same guys, the ones we were then arming and training, as "Freedom Fighters?"

I'd like to know, because I'm a bit afraid that 20 years from now maybe we'll be going through all this again. I'd kinda like to not make the same mistake twice. Or however many times we've already made it. Let's try and stop ourselves before we do it again. I mean, twenty years ago we helped them because they were fighting, apparently, for Freedom. Now, it seems, they've attacked the very foundation of it. I'm not sure that their methods, other than sheer scale of the horror, are much different than what we were training them to do. I bet a few people in the Pentagon and the White House would've privately danced a jig if these guys had somehow managed to bomb the Kremlin back when the Iron Curtain still stood.

But hey, those Russki's are evil. I mean, were evil. Poor bastards. Well, nothing we can do about that. That's what they get. Deserve it. Evil empire and all.

You know, maybe we should at least be slapping ourselves on the wrist for abandoning every value by propping up such totalitarians as Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, paving the path of fascism for their ascendancy. Should we say, "Never again!" I don't know. I didn't think it was wise at the time. I said it many others. Not that it helped.

There was the Suharto thing with East Timor. Hush hush for years and years. But we all saw how that turned out. Not that it hurt our trading situation with Indonesia much, except we couldn't sell them attack aircraft and heavy infantry equipment anymore. Lost a lot of money there. And it hurt a bit when we finally got around to putting our money where our mouth was with the apartheid lot. Well, those of us who actually participated.

That's OK. That's all in the past. We're going to root these bastards out. Make the world safe for Democracy again. Just like the Israelis have done in the Middle-East.

Wait a minute. The Israelis, owners of the best damn military outside the US, and the best intelligence outfit anywhere, have utterly failed in all their attempts to wipe out terrorism in Israel. And their terrorists aren't spread out all over the planet. They're generally not more than an artillery shell away from any position within Israel's plastic borders. They shoot a couple rockets from a village, so the Israelis retaliate (need to get used to hearing that word a lot more) and practically level the whole village with artillery. Collateral damage notwithstanding. The next day, or the next week, the terrorists are back, lobbing mortars. And even with all the draconian withdrawals of any semblance of civil liberty, the terrorist violence only escalated.

This is just going to get ugly, I guess. Batten down the hatches, damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead, don't shoot 'til you see the whites of...

Wait. WAIT. There's gotta be another way. I mean, last century we had a "war to end all wars." And then promptly had another. Now we're in a state of constant petty wars and revolutions and genocides all over the planet. How do we stop this cycle if we keep jumping back on the merry-go-round?

But the terrorist thing is getting way out of hand.

We do have the hammer. We've got the military. We'll pound them into submission. Smite them. Destroy them.

What is that wisdom about hammers? If it's the only tool you've got, every problem looks like a nail. Maybe. Maybe we need to put the hammer away for a little bit. Maybe the problem we really have here is a screw. Or something else. That hammer might not be much good for this. The Israelis have the biggest one in their neighbourhood, and the enemy just keeps coming back. I don't know, it's a bit like that gopher game. You bop one on the head with a hammer and another pops up somewhere else. There're always more gophers.

No, I think we have to use the hammer. At least a little. This is a time that Lao Tse might agree is 'direst necessity.' But our language, our reasons for using force are hateful ones. Retaliation. Retribution. Revenge. And that is what we are seeking. "Satisfaction," as the euphemism goes. Destroy them. Let's ignore the moral and ethical implications for a moment. Are we capable of obtaining it? Satisfaction? Is bin Laden worried? He fought the Soviets to retreat, even though they occupied the country with infantry and air power. He had to know this was coming. Are we walking into a trap?

Maybe we need to look at this a bit more. I don't know. People are saying scary things. One of my favourite authors, Mark Helprin, referred to an "alien civilization." Who? The terrorists? Are they a civilization? Did he mean the people of Afghanistan? Iraq? The Taliban? Muslims? All of Islam? What does he mean by "alien?" What? Muslims don't belong on this earth? Is that what he's saying? Should we allow our own civilization to be characterised by the likes of Timothy McVeigh and a bunch of fanatical Christian abortion clinic bombers, who are also bent on destruction in some twisted sense of righteousness? Helprin talked about strategic campaigns in all 'states of concern' around the globe. Pakistan, Iraq, North Korea are such states, just to name a few. Wipe out their nuclear and biological programs, he said. Can we do that? What are the repercussions? We'd need American military bases all over the globe, he says. A global military state? Is that really what we want? Is that really what we need?

Scary things... On the radio the other day, someone said, "I am a pacifist. I hate violence. But I don't know. I think there's only one solution. We have to get not only the terrorists, we have to kill not just them, but their mothers and fathers too, their children, their aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews. We have to wipe out the entire gene pool."

I could tell this really broke him up. He didn't like saying it. And I could tell something else. He meant it.

Wow. Genocide.

And the host, Rex Murphy no less, was stunned into silence. Or was he stunned? Maybe even Rex felt that surge of anger. I don't know. There's so much blind hatred floating around. Rage and rhetoric. Maybe his cooler head prevailed?

What's wrong about that caller's plan is you can't stop with the gene pool. I felt like shouting at him. No! For that to work, you'd have to wipe out every soul sympathetic to the demands of the terrorists. No. There's more. There will be those who are not sympathetic, but who hate us every bit as much for their own reasons. (So many reasons!) We'll have to wipe them out too. Some of them call themselves American, or Canadian or Irish or French. But we'll weed them out. You have to obliterate the very ideas they have. We're not born with these ideas, afterall. You're not genetically a terrorist, or a capitalist, a dove or a hawk, a Christian or Muslim. Not really. You might be born into it, but people lapse or convert all the time. We'd have to take out all the people that think that way for genocide to make any sense. And then we'd have to go after the ones who are inclined to start thinking that way all by themselves. People who willingly submit themselves to tear gas and arrest in the name of protest.

Thought control. That's what we need. And we'd have the hammer for backup. Why not? We're already talking about eradicating a civilization.

Wait. Wait. But how can we militarily obliterate the idea of violence as a means to an end without instructing soldiers and their mothers and fathers, their children, their aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews in the unfortunate necessity of using violence as a means to an end? Can it be good to use violence in such a way? How do we know when it's good? Who is supposed to tell us? Our leaders? Is it OK to use violence only if you're a soldier supported by the taxes and votes of a democratic people? Does that make sense?

Madness. With madness we'll eradicate madness.

The President said the terrorists struck at freedom, which they hate. Maybe they do. But what they struck at was the Pentagon and The World Trade Center. Not the Liberty Bell. Not the Statue of Liberty. Not the Washington Monument, or the Jefferson Memorial. The Pentagon and The World Trade Center. Are they striking out at Freedom? I don't know. I don't think so. Maybe they are striking out at power. A power that controls destinies around the world. A power metaphorically and physically centred in two places.

If I marched in Seattle, or at APEC in Vancouver, was I attacking freedom? If I speak out against the military actions in the Gulf War and in Serbia, am I attacking freedom?

Oh, Jesus. Don't lump me in with mass murderers. No, don't imagine that I believe terrorism is a proper form of protest. I can't even imagine a mind that could bomb buildings, killing thousands, or hundreds, or even just one. It's unfathomable. It's a crime beyond all reasonable understanding.

But I can protest, non-violently. I can speak. I can urge others to listen, to reflect, to think about this all a bit more. I can take C.S. Lewis' prescription and look inward, at the hatred, rather than outward at the object of it. Maybe then I will understand something.

There are many people who do not like what the WTC or the Pentagon represent. They are among us. No, they are us. We are a little afraid of that power too, even if it is, nominally, our own. We are called various things. Anti-globalists, anti-free trade. We have chanted, "Bring down the WTO." But not like that. Not like that horror.

Still, are we attacking Freedom? No, we are expressing it. The freedom my father defended in a NATO jet. The freedom my grandfather fought for in the Great War, the one that nearly took his life and left him hobbling. The same freedom upon which I would lay my life, were it threatened.

But is it threatened? Freedom? I don't know? Security. Is that it? A security unique to us in North America. Security!

I have been in Belfast, at a time of relative calm. Had my bags checked on my way into shops. I walked through a mall, and a shoe salesman saw the long-hair and the large bag, then quietly took 3 long, cautious steps back from the doorway, never for a moment taking his eyes off me. Walked into Donegal Pass, and felt the oppressive malaise of bipolar power. I watched uniformed men and women check every bus entering the malls at Donegal Place for bombs. And in London's double deckers and at the airport, they warn you not to touch any stranded bags. Here, in our little haven, the airports warn not to leave bags unattended due to thievery; there unattended bags are destroyed by the bomb squad.

We have been living in a dream world here. Isolated. Secure. No longer. (Or were we really secure? I have been on the elevated in South Chicago at night, and never felt more threatened. I won't go exploring in any large American city without knowing my path will take me through safe neighbourhoods.)

But it is not our fault. What did we do to them? We have done nothing wrong.

Have we? Well, maybe we have. Nothing to deserve the calamity that has befallen us. That was madness. I won't offer the perpetrators any excuse. That is not protest; it's violent acting out on hatred. But still perhaps we have done something wrong. Or maybe it's not so bad. Maybe we just haven't done something right, or very well. Like when you think you're doing a friend a favour, only to find out you had it all wrong and ruined the friendship to boot.

I don't know. I don't want to get into all that. Not right now. Too much anger and hate floating around to get anywhere. Round and round in circles we'd go.

But I know this. We know no more about them than they know about us. Perhaps less. Their lies about us; our lies about them. Us and them. Familiar refrain? We thought that melted away with the Cold War. Ahh, but we can teach 'them' something about us. We will. We will, because we can. We use the UN when practical, the IMF when profitable and, when all else fails, we teach them with force. Because we've got the biggest goddamn sledge hammer on the planet and we're not afraid to use it. Even if the problem might not be a nail.

And what will they learn about us? What lessons do bullets teach? Ask the Israelis and Palestinians who have distilled their hatred for each other to a bitter little pill they take daily. Ask the Northern Irish, who have managed to shock even themselves with their own hatred of late.

And will we bother learning anything about this alien civilization as we slay them? Did we learn anything about the Vietnamese? The gooks, as we called them? Or are we only just now, in the last few years, curious enough to even ask?

Was Bush's speach worthy of Helprin? At Helprin's raging rhetorical best, not quite. Bush may never top last week's WSJ editorial for knee-jerk, racist (alien civilization?) reactionism, and neither may Helprin.

I love Helprin for his lyrical prose, for the idealism expressed toward love and beauty in all its forms. For his sense of humour and the absurd--coffee as evil! Some of the other stuff, particularly his WSJ editorials, show a side of him that makes me nervous. No. It outright scares me.

Presently listening to:
The Gates of Delirium - Yes - Relayer (40:29)

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