January, 1991 was the eve of the First Gulf War. I took a train down from Boston to Washington, D.C. to observe the anti-war demonstrations taking place there. I felt a general solidarity with people of conscience who opposed violent action in the Gulf, albeit with misgivings as how best to confront Saddam in Kuwait. I attended impartially with my camera, and managed to catalogue about 500 photos.
I came away from the protests very confused. I went expecting to see speeches and rallies against the upcoming war, which were plenty. But there were also many other convocations by a disparate collection of people representing unrelated causes. There were gay rallies, pro-Sandanista rallies, pro-abortion rallies, and Earth First rallies; there were communists, socialists, anarchists and the precursors to the antiglobalists -- all of them performing acts while seemingly indifferent to opposing the war at hand.
I returned to Boston realizing that the liberal agenda was splintered into fragmented camps. Collectively, they lacked a powerful voice. Their discordant protests came off as noise -- performed on common ground but lacking a common cause. The D.C. rallies were like a morose party -- a parody of people's pet objections, acted as performance art and crafted for the network cameras that lined the streets bounding Lafayette Park.
During the remaining 1990s, while the country partied and worked overtime in search of digital gold I took a breather from the world, to recline as a political zero. I was utterly amazed and distressed at the excesses of those post-historical dotcom days. We were becoming too soft as a culture, I believed -- surrounded by too much wealth, convenience and distractive media to actually defend ourselves as free people. I felt that the West's hard-won liberal principles were melting into irony in the face of blinding overabundance and frivolous politics. But the confetti of those heady times draped over my concerns, and like many other people, I was too busy shuffling pixels to put much energy into discerning the gathering storm. But I sensed that history was near. For me, the 1990s were like a glorious sunset at the end of a long, resplendent day.
And then came nightfall.
- - -
I admit that it took 9/11 to slap me awake from complacency. It wasn't merely a shock to see the twin towers implode; I had the sick realization that the abstraction of history that so eluded me had suddenly made it's triumphant return. I felt irrelevant -- that I knew nothing when those buildings fell. Nothing. I knew that the free world had to be rewired, if only to survive the incipient era of terror that was hurtling towards us.
Yet many have dug their heels into familiar political ground. Political affiliation has become a security blanket -- a thing of comfort, worn in a tumultuous time. I can understand that. But in this era, reinvention is the key to survival, not pulling the proverbial covers over our heads.
My ironic western soul remains at odds with this changing, restless digital age of terror. We live in an era where an airline is pasting the gigantic blue mug of Elton John on the side of its planes, while Islamic fascists plot to fly them into the sides of our logo-covered skyscrapers. This is an age where our heritage is packaged in pixelated plastic, manufactured in China. Much of our history is a corporate museum staffed by underpaid posers wearing historical garb -- it doesn't take a genius to notice the charades that make up daily life. There's long been fake bricks on the quaint store fronts; 'Ye Olde Shoppe' signs on the corporate outlets; old-tyme values are spun into cheap, skin-deep amusement. Digital miracles have thrusted synthesized apparitions into our collective consciousness. When the trickery is applied to commercialism, most of us suspect that our culture is canned, and pitched. Crass commercial illusions amplified by powerful media tends to feed cynicism, not optimism. Irony hangs in our art galleries; it's the hot seller at Barnes & Noble and on the Big Screen.
This can be a strange time, where liberals -- once the bulwark of the struggling class -- drive to the supermall in SUVs just like conservatives do, with their kids zoning out on TV in the plush backseats. After parking their boats, the SUV Conservative and the SUV Liberal diverge at the mall over their choice of branded food -- one preferring Wendy's, the other Jamba Juice. Moral decisions too often boil down to merely buying brands that emit the right PC-vibes -- paper or plastic?
Perhaps the word embarrassment best describes the mood of a lot of secular, free-world westerners. I can relate. There's just so much damned stuff. I was in The Container Store with friends the other day and I realized it was a booming business because, with all our foreign-made stuff, Lord knows we need all sorts of foreign-made plastic containers to store it in. What a business! And at the checkout counter, people buying their crap containers snapped up copies of Real Simple magazine, perhaps fantasizing that the Mennonites had it right all along.
There is plenty of irony to life in our secular, anything-goes, well-supplied world. It comes with a bizarre set of postmodern values in the form of embarrassed guilt over our swelling girth. We're all super-sized. Our whole culture and self-image is super-sized. Our problems and solutions are super-sized. Our shopping centers, churches and whims are all super-sized. The weighing scale is popping its springs, and the only thing we've got in the larder is custard. No wonder wheatgrass is such a hot seller.
We suffer the complaints of kings, not oppressed masses. Look at us. We're spending billions of dollars despairing over burning excess calories and alleviating the clutter of useful junk. Our litany of complaints seem more to do with organizing our pillows than with nourishing our souls. Our royal embarrassment has lead to ironic, self-indulgent guilt.
There's no escape from the culture of guilt. None at all. You can go completely vegan, if you like -- the cows and chickens can finally retire to Happy Barn Ranch -- but you'll still be guilty when eating that nut-and-gluten soy-cheese NotDog™. You'll be guilty of supporting corporate farming and wetback labor. You might grow that stuff yourself, or join an organic farm cooperative, but you'll be guilty of using the land for agriculture when instead it should be a virgin redwood forest.
We lead conscience-stricken lives. And in our culture of psychobabble, guilt is the worst thing possible. That word has practically been banned from our secular lexicon, since it figures so prominently in the Bible. But there it is, shining its headlights onto our rotund, soft, well-fed bellies: Guilty... guilty... guilty...
So I understand the guilt. And the embarrassment. And the irony. I get it. But here's the rub: A simple solution is at hand. The guilt can be relieved. The irony silenced. Restless people in this world have a plan. The Call to Prayer beckons from a minaret near you. You could sequester your wife, perhaps add a few others to your name. You could send your kids to a madras. You could pin all the world's problems on the Jews, and onto anyone else who has a grain of progress left in their skull. You could have a whole world of convenient enemies along with those Zionist Jews -- Shi'ites, Sunnis, Sufis, Secularists, Christians, Hindus, women, homosexuals, Americans -- there's an endless supply of people who you can project your guilt onto. It can be quite refreshing. The next edition of Real Simple magazine should splash Muhammad Atta on their cover. Because it doesn't get any simpler than piloting Allah's jet into the twin towers of western guilt and embarrassment.
Muhammad Atta must have been the most guilt-free man on Earth in the seconds leading up to his plunging Flight 11 into the North Tower. His gesture was the ultimate F**k You that lurks in many an embarrassed westerner's privileged heart. Some might say that they understand Atta's feelings, but I don't -- and I don't want to try. Deep down, 9/11 forced me to cut the cord on my royal discontent before it became self-hatred, metastasizing in my soul. Any westerner's quasi-alliance with medieval Islamofascists is playing with ancient fire. Sure, it singes our excessive, bulging culture. It might even feel like it's cauterizing wounds. But fascist fire is hotter than most people imagine. My pessimism has its limits, and Shari'a law is it.
The Belmont Club quoted Nelson Archer's column, The Berlin Wall's Revenge regarding the vengeful Left:
They have only things to destroy, and all those things are personified in the US, in its very existence. They may, outwardly, fight for some positive cause: save the whales, rescue the world from global heating and so on. But let's not be deceived by this: they choose as their so-called positive causes only the ones that have both the potential of conferring some kind of innocent legitimacy on themselves and, much more important, that of doing most harm to their enemy, whether physically or to its image.The Belmont Club chimes in:
...any honest Leftist must realize that his movement and its aspirations are rooted in the very West it seeks to destroy. Communist totalitarianism is the doppelganger of secular freedom; and the serpent in the garden must know that the desert, so hospitable to Islam, can only be a place of death for it. The Left may have embarked upon a journey of revenge. They will find suicide.I often appreciate Wretchard's deeply considered political analyses, but I think it he might be oversimplifying things by identifying internal opposition as 'the Left,' ascribing it destructive traits like revenge. Belmont and Archer's essays make little distinction between Left and Liberal, sharing the same suspicion that I have -- that often, they're one in the same, and what distinguishes them in our satirical media is very subtle.
All this takes me back to Washington D.C. in 1991. What I saw was a large gathering of people who were marching out of conscience. They felt there was a non-violent way to achieve a resolution in the Gulf other than war. Whether or not their conscience was misguided and naïve, or enlightened and viable in the game of global power politics is certainly open for debate. But within that crowd -- the ones who were genuinely opposing violence -- there were many good, earnest people, marching with their families. They weren't there to exact their revenge. They were The Embarrassed, not The Vengeful.
But the wild, hellish malcontent party at the fringes drowned-out those good people of conscience and stole the show, and has gained a lot of momentum since 1991. There is still a difference between Liberal and Leftist, though what distinguishes the two is often incredible in the media age of Moore and Fox.
Not all conservatives are followers of Pat Robertson and send their kids to Baptist Bible colleges, demanding Creationism in their schools; not all liberals are members of the leftwing Tranzi freak show, hurling stones at banks. There still is a vast middle ground of good people in this country -- people who are reasonable and principled. But the radical fringes at the edge of their politics have the microphone.
The same is true of Muslims. People decry the silence of moderate Muslims, who quietly acquiesce to the radicals amongst them who are steering mosques into becoming anti-western strongholds. Moderate Muslims must speak out to save their religion. But it rarely happens. Their media-savvy radical fringe is setting the course for Islam like it is in conservative and liberal camps.
The media age rewards people for building cartoon effigies of their opposition and hurling stones at them for the television cameras. This indecent tableau is primarily what forms our opinions of society, turning opposition into enemy. No one loves a mic more than a totalitarian; and humanity is minting totalitarian idealism like there really is no tomorrow. In the process, liberals are blind to fascism; conservatives are blind to global cooperation; and Muslims are blind to the opportunities before them to transform their culture into a positive force that might address 21st century challenges.
Can level-headed, straight-shooting people find their voice, and take over the microphone? To paraphrase Joseph N. Welch:
"The radical fringes have done enough. Have they no sense of decency, at long last? Have they left no sense of decency?"