Wednesday, May 23, 2007

my two days as the reaper

Politics in this country means staring: staring at the TV screen or the computer screen. Take it another step and you are typing to another member of your subculture’s subset – to a blogger of your own persuasion. Under the stare, like an incomplete dubbing, runs a mutter, one’s own weak rejoinder to the invincible gloss of the editors or spokesmen populating the talk shows. “Oh come on,” you mutter, “How can you say that when the polls show a tie in Ohio??” One’s sense of logic is severely offended. Between a total surrender to the point of view of the speakers on the screen and the total rejection of a channel change lies an unsatisfying, inner mutter of debate. The inner voice is unsatisfying because the debate is unrequited; one’s voice will never be heard. The voice is utterly impotent. No wonder so many political types turn to the keyboard.

Politics in this country is all about restraint close-in, and maximum exertion over a distance. In other words, within one’s geographically lived-in circle, one keeps quiet unless in the company of known compatriots. In the coffee shop, in the book store, in the mini-mart, int he supermarket, the heavy tapestry of political development weighing down the atmosphere is not allowed to be spoken of. Within the silence of this unnatural restraint runs the weak mutter of one’s internal voice, analyzing, complaining bitterly at the tide of changes that never go discussed: “jeezus, there’s three automated checkouts now instead of two! Wow, ain’t solitude wonderful! Look at all the people lined up! The convenience of zero contact with humans, what a society, what a bunch of shitty values. . .all offered so unselfishly by the corporations, which give people what they “naturally” want, which is solitude and a lonely death, I suppose. . .” Above that unnatural silence runs the unnatural banality of what small talk still survives – the hollowed-out shell of what was once a full-blooded etiquette. “How are you?” the cashier asks bloodlessly, tonelessly, the grammatical question mark not matched by a rise in voice pitch. “OK, thanks,” one replies, adding a beat too slowly, remembering, “How are you?”

“That’s 13.81,” she says by way of reply.

Close-in restraint is complemented by noise over a great distance. Politics in this country is a deathly silence on the local level and a blustering mouth with a megaphone nationally. A mere offhand comment made by a famous mouth, a Sharpton or a Rove, a Rich or a Buckley, is picked up by the mic-end of a vast media megaphone. The mic-end of this megaphone is inordinately sensitive to fame and power, while the loudspeaker end is inordinately deaf to the mundane, the modest, the obscure. The media megaphone is above all an instrument of inequality that assigns voice to the select few with “expertise” and sales figures while consigning everyone else to a lifetime of passivity and restraint – nonexistence on the large screen of the nation; muttering to oneself on the streets of one’s own town or in one’s own house. One can guess that the popularity of shopping and reality tv is related to this impotent silence. Reality tv is the same old media megaphone, but made slightly more palatable because non-professionals serve as the actors. Although the protagonists in these shows are the writers and producers. The “regular people” fit into the slots prepared for them. They have auditioned and competed for the right to let the media machine make them look like fools. As for shopping – well, it is the voice of the voiceless, a reliable, if short-lived, sense of power and agency.

The one-sided power of the media faces a hidden power that it cannot read: the pent-up voices of millions. The mic offered to the rich and powerful often inadvertently picks up this background chatter: the boy dozing off behind Bush as he gives a speech, the “area resident” surprised by a news team while walking home, the soldier handed a microphone and ambushing Rumsfeld with a real question. Blogs are becoming an intermittently influential media peanut gallery, a second tier of power. But those bloggers who leverage sex scandals and beauty ( and outrageous statements to become celebrities simply serve as “experts” on news shows, and so are incorporated as an entertaining layer of talk by the established media. The religious right’s absurd, permanent sense of victim status even after their election victory, makes more sense when one realizes that they feel as I do: powerless in the face of the media machine. Just because the run up to Christmas featured dozens of pseudo-news stories of groups intent on “putting Christ back into Christmas,” against an unnamed conspiracy, does not mean that these evangelicals feel empowered in the media. I believe that the cultural resentment they express is in fact more economic in character, and shares with my frustration a common source: a lack of power that is inevitable in a huge nation bound together by a media that cannot be anything by elite. Their answer, in my opinion, is absurd: pray to Jesus. At best, this solution is highly indirect. My answer, on the other hand, is to face the problem directly as one not of culture or Jesus but one of inequality.

Parties no longer exist except as fund-raising arms of national organizations. They work strenuously on the national level to influence the media. There hangs a deathly and unnatural political silence over localities, a silence punctuated only by the eerie blossoming of campaign signs on lawns every so often. The signs are mass-produced, and professionally distributed. There is absolutely no local hand involved in their design or make. These signs are pitiful, sterile tokens of underlying passions, poor, one-size-fits-all symbols of an emotional and intellectual landscape as varied as the face of the earth. This silence and enforced passivity most of us dwell in – where talk of sports, clothes, cars, music and movies (topics almost entirely national) gushes without any restraint whatsoever, because they are politics-free – is the price paid for our privileged status as citizens in the American nation, the only truly sovereign nation-state in the world. That this talk gushes to freely is due to necessity: except for a few close friends, most of us live in a world of acquaintances with no “content” in common but what comes off the media that morning.

Our nation is so strong and stable only because active political life was eviscerated during the Depression and New Deal, where people traded in politics – the art of working for one’s own world – for “security,” a false word manipulated by both governments and corporations to sell us a bill of goods. The nation is an alliance of state and corporate power unmatched worldwide. This alliance allows us to gall asleep each night and wake up each morning in the silence of a local suburban landscape where political passions, in the wide, true sense of politics, were bought off, chased out, and disappeared decades ago. Although the cleansing operations go on unabated. A man with “Peace” written on a t-shirt is thrown out of a suburban mall. (This story, by the way, does not make it into the persecution tales of the religious right, and only shows that all of us feel victimized by the very structure, not the content per se, of the media-led eradication of politics from daily life). This condition is an anomaly. As the political consensus of the state and corporations breaks down, as it is doing, ordinary people will begin to be jolted awake from the half-century-long silence which was the domestic counterpart of the anti-communist struggle abroad. The liberal consensus that was formed during the cold war, in which corporations would rule, but rule benevolently hand in hand with a social-political elite committed to a paternalistic idealism and government service – is disappearing.

But the political silence of the towns and suburbs remains like a stubborn fog, a habitual deadness assisted by an increasingly atomized lifestyle that is only slowly cracking under the force of outrageous circumstance – namely, the Bush administration’s arrogant acts on the world stage and its full alliance with corporate greed at home. The car, the tv, and the internet have built a habitual crust of solitude in the very structure of suburban life that cups us like a benevolent palm. This womb-like hold is hard to break, because solitude easily becomes a habit for fragile psyches unused to the rigor of full socialization, a thing little seen in this country except in rural and urban areas. Americans are the most thin-skinned and emotionally fragile people on earth simply because of the rarified, isolated conditions of their lives. (examples – shahla, pondoks) and the growing din and discordancy of the media megaphone outside their windows – which is picking up the local awakening – only makes most people want to roll over in their beds and revisit in dream the long postwar silence when politics was a hobby attended to by the few and reality could be reduced to shopping, tv, and sports.
Vietnam was an aberrant intrusion of political reality, fought at every turn, but the Reagan-Clinton regime promised a return to politics by the elite and a soothing silence locally. But the end of the cold war and the repudiation of the liberal policies and paternalism that helped win it meant that polarization was sure to occur with the widening social gap. No unifying ideology, no new form of solidarity, was left to fill in the gap and make the poor believe the rich were on their side. Both GOP and Democrats have attempted to harness this rising resentment against the unmasked greed of the corporate-governing elite alliance, the GOP with more success using meaningless symbolism in its faux “culture wars” that touches on not one real issue facing ordinary people. I do not believe that shopping at Nieman-Marcus and not seeing the word “Christmas” is the really at the root of America’s social ills. The emptiness of the suburbs, socially and culturally, makes it all the easier for such a pseudo agenda to succeed. People are not even in touch with their own suffering; how can one expect them to look out over society and see what is happening?

A few nights before the election I was walking home from town in the dark. I passed a house with a lit up jack-o-lantern in a second floor window. The room was dark, and the pumpkin was a globe of primeval light. If the Anglo-Saxon world has given anything to the world of aesthetic wonder, if would have to be the lit jack-o-lantern of a nighttime. I lay awake that night after turning off the TV and it occurred to me to turn the jack-o-lantern into a mild political prank. I could put 4 or 5 in a row and carve “IRAQ – 20,000 DEAD.” The next night in the kitchen I spilled the idea to my brother.

The location would have to be legally unchallenged and clearly visible to passing cars. No one walks in suburbs. But Route One, in front of our house, would not do because traffic is moving too fast. “I’ve got it,” I told him the next day after another night turning it over and over in my mind. “We’ll put em in the back of the truck, drive it to Main Street and park it, light em, and drop the tailgate. Automatic show.” But Friday night I had a better idea. Why not dress up as the Grim Reaper and carry a sign praising Bush for his war and the (at least) 20,000 dead? My adrenaline surged, which meant I knew I would do it. I was scared and excited.
In the basement I sketched out 3 signs, 2 for me and one for Scott. He would walk ahead of me holding a sign reading “Please welcome the honorable GRIM REAPER” visiting from Iraq.” I would walk behind, with the front of my sign reading “I LOVE your WAR George! Keep up the carnage.” The other side satirized the ubiquitous bumper sticker: “’Power of Pride’?? Try ‘Power of Reality’!!” Our markers ran out and we found some paints and brushes Dad had used to paint the porch.

Scott knocked on my door noon Saturday, and asked, “Are we still doing it?” I rolled out of bed and saw the road was wet and black. I went downstairs and taped the saran wrap on the signs. I quickly ate and showered and painted my face and hands and donned the black hooded robe I had found at a costume shop in Guilford. I was nervous as hell. “Look up the Police Department number,” I told Scott, “And write it on your hand.” I printed out the essay I had written the night before as a hand-out in case confronted by the hostile or the curious. Should I stay in character and refuse to speak?

Dad took a picture or two of us out the back door, and we set out toward town, crossing the road so as to face the traffic. Scott walked ahead with a beefy friend, John who had agreed to come with us. We left around 4:15. Immediately cars were slowing to get a look. I lowered my head and stared at an indefineable point up ahead. Again and again I heard a “whoosh” as the person driving got it and hit the gas – as if kicking my shin. Was there a curse expressed in that stamping down? I was on the ground, but they in their cars were still as if watching TV, in their disengagement from the environment. They hit the gas like someone would hit the change channel arrow on their remote with a “take that, son of a bitch!!” The land, seen from the car, becomes “scenery” from the windshield, a backdrop to one’s day, rolling by silent and empty.

A really substantial politics requires space where people are in a single location and debating and wrestling verbally. So my breaking from the easy chair receiving end of the TV megaphone was no more than a provocative trick, and could be no more than that as long as I was on the ground and nearly everyone else was flying by 2 feet above it. In dressing up and carrying a sign I was deliberately marring the de-politicized, de-socialized scenery, turning this prostrate “backdrop” of lawns and trees, this absent-minded mood music of solitary experience once more into a common land, into a location full of potential for meeting, for conflict, for meaning. Not that I was expecting anyone to stop and talk to me – I was afraid of such a possibility! But I hoped, at least, to remind people of the locality they were speeding through and so eager to keep a distance from. I was poking my finger in the eye of this obsession with self-separation and car culture as much as I was protesting Bush’s war. In my mind, this self-separation by car is an exact parallel to self-separation by TV, and the machine that allows people to see land as framed scenery, to be seen momentarily and forgotten, is similar in operation to the machine that allows far places to be seen as framed scenery, useful backdrops for imagining ourselves as virtuous freedom-fighters, until the bodies pile up -- and then be forgotten.

We ambled along slowly, recoiling inwardly at each “Fuck you!”; warming inwardly at each thumbs up. We made it to town and I told Scott to slow it down even more. People stared at us from restaurant and store windows. A boy ran after us, trying to read our signs. A group of girls came out of Village Pizza, asking us what we were doing, impetuously and irrelevantly. “How old are you?” asked one. “Do you really mean that, or are you just joking?” asked another. As we left, one girl informed us that she George Bush was her uncle. They were field hockey players from Greenwich. At the end of the main street I stopped and put down my sign and scythe and we rested a few minutes before walking back and detouring over to Stop and Shop.

Finally we stowed our signs behind RJ Julia bookstore, went in, and ordered a cup of hot chocolate. Without the signs we were safe, normal; the people in the cafĂ© joked and commented on my costume and makeup. I ran upstars and went to the bathroom – my innards all astir from the tension of setting myself up as a target. Scott and John got a ride home and I walked back alone. The weight on my back was too much, so I finally held the scythe and the sign together in my two hands. I came back and fell on the couch, exhausted.

Sunday was sunny. I lay in bed and thought about maybe not doing it again. But I reminded myself of the improved sign ideas that had come to me the night before and decided to get up. I went to the basement and painted them up, much simpler than the previous ones: “The Reaper for Bush – 200 Iraqi dead WEEKLY”, and on the back “How are we SAFER with 200 Iraqi Civilians DEAD in a war we started?” I went alone this time, borrowing Dad’s cell phone and putting it in my shirt pocket with the police department phone number. I taped the two signs to my scythe, making the job a lot lighter, and set out on the same route. A truck with 2 white men in it honked and swerved at me; I mimed lunging toward them. Despite my intention not to respond to obscenities and threats there were a few times I could not help raising my middle finger at especially vile comments. The curses tended to come from SUV drivers, or from 20-something white males. One Land Rover driver was especially egregious. Women and middle-aged drivers tended to be more supporting.

A group of skateboarders watched me approach on Main Street. “Can I take a picture with you?” asked one. I nodded silently. “I respect this,” he said and I posed with him and kept going. At the lights were dozens of cars lined up so I was able to show them all both signs. A car pulled over. “Excuse me, can you tell me where the catholic church is?” asked a woman. I told her and she wished me well. By the time I was headed back home the sun was dipping low and I was tired and relaxed, holding the scythe up with one hand as I crossed roads. When there were no cars I straightened up, arching my poor back. I went down to West Wharf to lie down on the rocky point and pull off my hood. My back was killing me. As I passed a woman in her driveway I heard her say quietly, “I am with you.” A man said, “Excuse me,” from behind, and I turned cautiously. “Hi, I’m Steve, from Branford. I like what you are doing.” And then as if to explain himself he added, “I knew George McGovern personally.” I lay on the rocks, eyes shut, for a few minutes. I called Dad on the phone to see if they had any candy for trick or treaters. I felt only a few moments of elation, or pride, but more of a settled satisfaction, a satiation. I had turned myself into a target, a sacrifice of sorts, in protest not just of Bush but of the depoliticized suburban structure of life. I didn’t change anything of that structure, but my performance poked a momentary hole in its aura of inevitability, in its dome of silence. I had turned the roadside from an empty backdrop for driving, a private space, into a scene of performance.

My dad had said little to me as I went out the second day, leading me to think he felt uneasy about my provocation. But that night when he said a prayer at the dinner table he expressed thanks, to God, for my courage, and I was moved. Still in my makeup I put away a hamburger and a hotdog and then washed the paint all away, watching the white and black turn to a horrific grey, oozing off my face.

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