Why does it feel as if the times are unhinged? Or is it that the crimes, collusions, and skeletons long underlying the foundations of power are exposed ever more nakedly? In the truck on the way to New Haven station, I mentioned to dad that the 2000 elections felt like the shock that shook the dust off old foundations. I came out of my room to piss in the early morning of November 3 to see my roommate intently gazing at the glowing screen in the dark. “Do we have a president yet?” I asked, and he shook his head.
“Florida was Gore’s for a while, and then it was red. Now it is undecided,” he said. We sat looking wonderingly at the red and blue map on the screen.
Dad and I sat in the truck listing off all the reasons for discontent: all the outrages oozing unstoppably from the Gothic byzantium of the system: Enron, gas prices, farm subsidies that choke third world farmers, more corporate scandal every day, the blackout, the “jobless recovery,” the fearmongering that took us to war and the deficit spending and arrogant denial ever since. Is it that these outrages laid low for decades unnoticed? Or that they have been perpetrated more egregiously by people unloosed from the bonds of a former morality?
But against all that, all the naked corruption and deceit and abuse of powers, against all that stands an unbelievable belief – a belief defensive, a belief wounded by disbelief, an angry belief. Those who believe, buoying the approval ratings of the president’s war in the face of all evidence of perfidy and suffering, use bland words like “a job to do,” “can’t cut and run,” and “do the right thing.” The danger veiled by these assertions of honor is the danger of humiliation. The fear of symbolic castration – such as the spectacle of a defeat for the military – melts all real world considerations into one fear. Thus, any criticism or other intrusion of reality that contributes to humiliation is labelled treasonous. The hidden truth is that our unprecedented power is matched by an unprecedented vulnerability to failure – failure, that castrating brew that emasculates nations.
The necessity of staying in Iraq enunciated by those terrified of humiliation thus has little to do with Iraq, or the real possibility of terrorist attacks, or with democracy. No, it has everything to do with America the man, astride the globe (fists in the tar baby), a male vision of glorious male power, golden hair flying, a dream-figure of righteous law-giving and liberation who looks like Custer and Jesus. America, symbolic priest and captain whose efficacy as talisman cannot be allowed to fail even if the endeavor in question were suicidal or worse. Failure is feared far worse than destruction. America, shining monument whose manly power seems self-evident (coming from an internal source), even though the 64 percent who stubbornly support the war know deep down that the idol is animated by our own voluntary belief and desire, and that, should that light of faith go out in every citizen’s heart, America would be more thoroughly extinguished than if bearded men were to toy with our electrical grid one rainy night in Ohio. The approval rating for war is no more nor less than a subconscious plebiscite on American power as it now exists.
That the plebiscite must take the form of a vote on war is absurd and tragic, a poltergeist in the useless corpse of a rodent. Reasoned opposition to war is read in the paranoia of overextended power, as a rational atheism, as a slap in the face of the golden-haired idol that bewitches America. Opposition is read as a No vote in the secret psychic plebiscite, which is why reason makes no dent in approval numbers. We must make clear our opposition to the war is both a rejection of war as plebiscite – ie, of war as an esteem-boosting tonic – and of the war itself as it is, as a tool in a bureaucratic coup by a clique of humorless suited men stationed, for now, in the suburbs of Northern Virginia.