the Progressive Review 's Undernews July 2002
REAL WAR today is not one against terrorism - which not even
federal agencies can uniformly define - but between myth and
reality. While myth has been doing extremely well over the past
two decades, reality has one ace in the hole: it doesn't really
care what people say about it.
the stock market has shown itself deeply contemptuous of its
boosters, the "war on terrorism" has increased the
likelihood of further attacks, and the Department of Homeland
Security has created vast new insecurities for those American
citizens who still want to live in a democracy. In the capital
city, the city council is considering a bill permitting big brother
spy cameras all over town - in part because they will reduce
the "fear" of crime. As Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic
Privacy Information Center asked the council: "Let us imagine
that crime has gone up after [the cameras are] installed but
the public, perhaps aided by an effective public relations campaign,
believes that the cameras have helped deter crime. How do we
evaluate the system?"
other words, does myth still trump reality?
worth noting that on this date in 1980, Peter Sellers died at
age 54. Sellers, in the person of Chance the gardener in "Being
There," left us with as a profound observation as we would
hear in all the years that followed: "Life is a state of
no other paradigm has so consistently and increasingly guided
the American spirit. Say it loudly, often, and on the right channel,
and it will be.
Chance, many now only to know the world through television. But,
unlike Chance, many do not have the wisdom of their garden.
do many these days - especially among the elites - have much
contact with the sort of reality that demands competence you
can't talk your way out of - say the type found among farmers
and those who earn their living on the sea. As Conrad noted,
"Of all the living creatures upon land and sea, it is ships
alone that cannot be taken in by barren pretenses, that will
not put up with bad art from their masters."
have been blessed by acquaintance with both the land and the
sea and these experiences have affected my outlook as much as
any college course, book, or ideology. And even though a writer,
I am deeply conscious of the limits of words compared, for example,
with the ability to protect oneself, or to choose a wise course,
nautically or politically.
also have at least some second hand knowledge of living close
to fear, for a part of my childhood was spent in the company
of an English girl evacuated during the bombing of London. It
hadn't been easy for Ann to get to Washington in July of 1940.
She wrote me 60 years later:
set sail in the Duchess of Atholl in convoy. There was a slight
skirmish with a submarine. I remember feeling the ship shudder
as depth charges were dropped but we were unscathed and pressed
on, though I remember seeing icebergs and wondering. That was
the time that my mother told me we might well be sunk. If I was
dragged underwater, not to struggle. I would come to the surface
naturally, then not to strike out to England or America but float
on my back, as I had learned at school, until I was picked up.
August 30, 1940, the Volendam set off with a load of British
children for America. It was sunk in the Irish sea. All were
September 17, the City of Benares sailed with many of the Volendam
survivors. It sank in mid-Atlantic and most of the children perished."
more British children were sent to America after that.
as always, was dry in wit, understated, resolute in determination,
and unflappable in crisis. What struck me as I read her letter,
was how much I had learned from her over the years about staying
calm and realistic in bad times. More than once, after September
11, I wondered what Ann would do right now.
I find myself in a town utterly possessed by crisis yet stunningly
unable to shine reality upon it. Almost from the moment of the
attacks of September 11, the news channels draped their screens
with pseudo-patriotic propaganda and now the president can hardly
be seen without some cynical semiotic pattern on the wall paper
behind him, misinforming the public and deluding himself. To
this day, we are not allowed - in any major public forum at least
- to consider the present crisis as the religious struggle that
it is or to raise the possibility that it is a rapacious foreign
policy and not rampant civil liberties that has so put us at
the public words about the market that fall down upon us even
faster than the market itself, are dripping in self-denial, empirically
absurd clichés, and hope masquerading as fact. As has
been pointed out, you would have done better investing in soft-drinks
and getting just your deposit back than taking the same sum and
buying some of the most touted stocks.
participants in this magic show are not just the politicians.
Our media increasingly covers perception rather than reality
and our academics have helped convince us that common truth doesn't
a whole tribe of professors make their living arguing that their
theories about the economy or geopolitics are objective, despite
these paradigms being strikingly unsupported by fact and in the
end having more in common with a creationist's use of the Bible
than with a scientist's use of evidence.
any case, it is certainly not a liberal-conservative divide.
It is the myth of each that, absent the other, everything would
be fine. In fact, both camps are engaged in manipulations of
emotions, ideas, and facts.
what happens when - as on September 11 or during the July crash
- reality intrudes again? Even the Christian fundamentalists
had enough sense to come up with an Apocalypse. The best the
boomers can do is to nod their heads as the man on MSNBC says
again, "buy and hold."
the gardener, forced outside his haven, ran into some young thugs.
His reaction was to pull out a remote and change the channel.
tried that twice in the past year and it hasn't worked any better
than it did for Chance.
may be time to get real.