The year 2003 winds down to a close. Nothing can stop it. Not writing, not painting, not even Fox Network TV. For me, centered as I am on the family, I find myself sitting down for a Thanksgiving dinner at the end of November and saying aloud to my cousin across the table, "Weren't we sitting here just the other day?"
And he says, "Yes, we were!"
The new millennium be damned. We all end up counting days like hours, and cycle back to Christmas carols long before we are ready to sing them. For some younger people, of course, time is moving more slowly--some lucky child living in his or her own dream world and who still believes in Santa Claus.
So if a whole year went by in a few days, there's not much sense in preparing for Christmas and New Year's. Rather, I am looking forward to Groundhog's Day as the half way point to the end of March, by which time I had better be on my toes, because I will be on my own. . . again!
Meanwhile the challenge is to keep my seventeen-year-old son in some kind of high-school program, my mother and father functioning as well as possible, finish my English 1A class, see an opera and a few concerts, keep up my exercise plan, and remain as considerate as possible to my extended family, friends, and, more generally, pray--at least--for Peace on Earth to Humans of Good Will! That may be, however, a too restrictive translation of the Latin. A true Christian, I maintain, would be obliged to love even those without good will (say, for example, Saddam Hussein and even Osama Ben Laden). In which case we would have to go back to the "Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men," of my childhood (and simply add, by implication "and Women, All Creatures Great and Small!").
I guess what I am really saying is that I am trying to stay SANE, but with all the intricacies and articulations true sanity requires.
Daily life in the United States under George W. Bush proves that, in areas beyond the family circle, postmodernism is alive and well. One day the public relations people, providing our President with words to mouth, have him utter neo-Wilsonian sentiments to describe the motives for a "legitimate" exercise of power in the Middle East and then a week later, standing next to Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, he speaks of the "necessary use of force" to restrain violent regimes. Weeks later, as a "kinder, gentler" season of the year is supposedly approaching, it turns that contracts to rebuild Iraq will go to countries who chose to become members of the Coalition of the Willing on the ground in Iraq. An historical moment came along nine months ago and those who jumped on the bandwagon will be rewarded; others won't. "The taxpayers insist on spending the 87 billion dollars that way." Time to forget the cooperation that once existed in Afghanistan and Kosovo when we were still trying to find Ben Laden and stop Milosevic. Actions are to speak louder than words. And sometimes they do.
I guess intellectuals tend to mark Athenian society as the ideal. You know, Socrates going around corrupting the youth with philosophy no less. The happy few who are passionate about ideas and how they could change the world if only given half a chance have always been in short supply except during brief periods such as in ancient Athens, and one almost always forgets that the kind of leisure that was provided to the "citizens" of that city state depended on the institution of slavery and the inferiority of women. On the other hand, there is far wider admiration--even among those who know little about history--for the Pax Romana, which had its intellectual supporters thanks to wealthy patrons. That we have entered an unabashed era of Pax Americana in the New World Order is all but a foregone conclusion. Patronage is not so much an issue; marketability of media products and campaign contributions are. Pesky dissidents beware.
Then the ultimate Christmas present this year, opened not a day too soon: the former Iraqi dictator with shaggy beard pried out of his fox hole to have his teeth examined and his defiant head sent down to Baghdad to find out what he still knows.
Maybe it's high time to create a separate compound for these guys. Noriega, Milosevic, the late Idi Amin, and now Saddam. Somewhere else besides Guantanamo Bay since by virtue of their media status ex-Dictators can never remain anonymous. Certainly the news is good for the Bush campaign, but the same old issues are bound to resurface. Does capital punishment really provide final justice? Under whose jurisdiction do "crimes against humanity" fall? What would have happened to Generalisimo Franco had he managed to run violently afoul of a once-cozy relationship with the United States? Might we not have heard him being called the "Butcher of Madrid?"
Ultimately the exercise of power is a messy business, corrupting the more absolute it becomes, and consistency in the area of enforcement of human justice is still a quite arbitrary matter. No wonder theologians stress that vengeance should be left in God's hands. Every step forward is made under world scrutiny and from multiple perspectives. "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." And what was it again Montaigne once said about people striving to be angels and becoming devils? But these reactions have become ravings of an out-of-date Liberal Arts education, a nostalgia for monastic life or the ivory tower in the groves of academe.
The imperial mantel that justified Queen Victoria's reign around the world over a century ago so that the "sun never set" on the Union Jack now passes to the Stars and Stripes. Then, in Kipling's words it was the "White Man's burden," which was an odd formulation of the old noblesse oblige that legitimized privileges to a minority with vague paternalistic obligations to make decisions for the peasants because they, like children, didn't possess the discretion to think or act for themselves. Such burdens, though no longer blessed by God as the "divine right of kings," still endowed nationalistic fervor with divine sanctions. Consider the words from "Rule Britannia":
When Britain first, at Heaven's command, arose from out the azure main,/ This was the charter of the land, and guardian angels sang this strain: 'Rule, Britannia, Britannia rule the waves; Britons never will be slaves!'
Other lands, less blest as thee, must in their turn to tyrants fall,/ Thou alone shalt flourish great and free, the dread and envy of them all . . . .
So goes Bush, so goes Tony Blair who presents us with the same win-or-retreat/either-or option, albeit more articulately. Phrased thusly there is no other option. We need to "stay the course," if we could only understand what course is plausible. We must fight terrorism everywhere or cower and fall to foreign tyrants.
Peace marchers and Old European states forget, according to this line of thinking, that it was an army that enforced transitions to democracy in Western Europe and finally brought the Soviet Union to its knees. Ironically, it is where these democratic values now flourish most that Bush must come to the rescue of an unpopular Labor Prime Minister and praise his "backbone." But that of course is just the point according to this line of thinking: the strength of democracies in the economic sphere makes them prone to weakness in the area of real politik. So it was not surprising when the President next showed up serving turkey to the troops at the Baghdad airport. He symbolically brings Home to the front, but only long enough to get a photo opportunity. The Heimat is linked to the Drag Nach Osten. Or in the language of America, Apple Pie and Mom are firmly linked to our Manifest Destiny. And certainly the troops themselves have been "good soldiers." Reasonable people will differ on the brilliance of this strategy, hoping always that the discussion centers on strategy and not "collateral damage" or a looming tragedy.
Retreat? Hasn't there been more retreat involved in cancelled Kyoto Accords, the weakening of the United Nations, and the refusal to allow the World Court to try "terrorists" rather than to detain them indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay? Again, questions of tactics are boiling down to questions of the legitimate uses of authority and who determines when a pre-emptive strike with heavy loss of life and "collateral damage" is justified. And then there is the question of how serious we really are about a Bill of Rights and democracy in the end. And when it comes to ideas and arguments, is it too much to ask to have one justification made at a time, with a few minutes in the cycle for rebuttal, before Weapons of Mass Destruction are baited and switched to Nation Building in rapid-fire succession.
I'm less and less sure there is any way out of the mess in Iraq; other than to hope that the Bush policy makers were right in the long run. Momentum will carry solid objects a long, long way, and with no viable Republican opposition in the primaries next year, Bush is all but unbeatable by any Democrat. In any case, the momentum will have to wait for the pendulum to swing a little more to the right before even those on the right begin questioning discrete aspects of the War on Terrorism, and by that time a few more lines in the sand will be drawn.
William Stafford had it right in "Being an American": "Some network has bought history, all the rights/ for wars and games. At home the rest of us/ wait. Nothing happens, of course./We know that somewhere our times are/ alive and flashing, for real. We sigh./ If we had been rich we could have lived/ like that. Maybe even yet we could buy/ a little bit of today and see how it is" (The Way It Is, Graywolf Press, page 217).
So back home, I am working on my web page, with frequent sorties to help with daily life in Camarillo and West Los Angeles. Having spent most of my energy as a teacher and putting writing aside between more pressing activities, I am finally able to spin a website of works from far-flung publications. It has become a kind of anthology or selected works of my own design. You may see it as kind of spider's website to catch the unsuspecting fly, but it is really much less sinister. Not having been "bought up" by any network (yet?), it tries to do what Kim Stafford, William Stafford's son, says about a useful function for the internet: to maintain a voice of witness and independent values with a skeptical eye to authoritarianism.
Of course, I have much close at home to praise here as well. The ocean is cleaner this time of year. Dolphins frolic among the re-growth of kelp forests. Soon the Great Gray Whales will be traveling south to Baja California, and we will be able to sight them along our coast both going south and later going back north. Now, if we could just get a few more mild showers of rain so that the airborne ash from the recent fires washes away without causing too much run off and pollution of water systems!
But how can I end this essay in this season of the year without a protest concerning the homeless--no better off for all the Media's world-shattering concerns. To paraphrase Dickens, "They are dying around us every day!"
This, however, is my Modesto--a state of mind mostly in confusion, and not the town in Central California. Someday I may be moved to relocate this Modesto. But for now I will keep the faith--more in the breech than in the observance.