A year and some has passed since my last Pastoral, and in some sense it seems as if nothing has changed, though in truth much has changed. For the worse. The Trump administration, dogged with endless scandal and corruption, simply doubles down. Mired in a cesspool of moral and ethical offenses and plain old crimes, the nation seems stunned, our political parties paralyzed. Offense on offense is dumped in the public lap, a myriad of impeachable acts are done and while the air is sour with alarm, almost nothing has happened to confront the new reality. Yet there is a reason for this stasis, one which curiously is what provokes it.
Starved dead whale in OregonFrom Bette Gordon’s Variety
The ascendancy of Trump, seen by many as an aberration, a slap in the face to our sense of civil decorum, was in reality simply an unveiling of ourselves. For decades America has been corrupt and rotted to the core – not just the hard-right business oriented sorts, but our nice soft liberals as well. On the right the military industrial complex and its endless wars, was encouraged to expand since there was much profit to be made from it, and few raised a complaint. Now President Eisenhower’s Farewell speech warning has come to full flower, and both Republicans and Democrats genuflect to the military, while civilians pay their taxes and utter “Thank you for your service” while veterans, utterly abandoned after that “service”, commit suicide at such rate that far more have died that way than in combat.
On the liberal side the corruption can be seen in universities which have become secondary to their football and basketball teams, where grade inflation and cozy “legacy” admissions warp the fabric of education. It can be seen in the empty gestures toward “green” behavior, with recycling and hybrid cars and endless feel-good symbolic acts which utterly fail to address the reality that America is a vicious militarist/capitalist system which seizes 25% of the globe’s resources to serve 4.4 % of the world’s population. To effect any real change requires a drastic down-sizing of American consumption, something which even the most liberal of Americans will not consider. They will say instead that the 25% must simply be more equitably distributed, not that we need to cut back 80% to properly fit our population. It is a moral corruption no less damning than the rude billionaire’s club of the Republican’s.
Neo-Nazi rally, NCNavy Seal acquitted of murdering Iraqi prisoner
While many “good” Americans abhor Trump, and many others celebrate him, the brutal truth is that he is a symptom, an ugly scab which reveals the broad, deep decadence which has been building in American society for decades, and which while transparently evident for all that time, was discreetly ignored or minimized, as being something which a minority of other people did, and never oneself. Corruption was a flaw of 3rd world places, or Italy or Turkey. It was the kind of lie familiar in totalitarian states in which the official truth is known by all be be false, but has to be accepted for survival. Americans imagined themselves mystically different but they were not. While the nation built a vast military empire, visible and obvious, everyone paid their taxes, and few protested. The unacknowledged benefits were simply too enticing, and besides, resisting would just be too much bother and risk.
Since the end of World War Two, Americans have lived in a fantasy bubble, perceiving themselves ever as the good guys, the white-hat cowboy come to save the damsel in distress. After all we’d gone to Europe’s and Asia’s defense, beating the Krauts and the Japs, sacrificing our youth for others. Our story. Never mind it was the Soviet Union which sacrificed endlessly more and did the job in Europe, and never mind it was Japanese over-reach which cost them their war. But for we Americans, nope, it was our glorious GI’s that turned the tide, and won the day. Westerns. We, in our own minds, come what may, were always the good guys.
As the world slowly pieced itself back together after the conclusion of the war, America was essentially a back-door socialist society, recovered from the Depression-era ravages of capitalism run amok thanks to the WPA, Social Security and myriad other government props deliberately devised to save capitalism from itself. Coupled with the steroid boost of vast government spending (debt) to conduct the war – factories for building ships, tanks, planes, all constructed on the government dime – the USA emerged as an industrial power-house with virtually no competition. It had all been leveled by the war, save for what was left in the USSR. Entering the ’50’s America propagated its myths to the globe, and to itself.
USA USA USA #1 #1 #1.
And America, and much of the rest of the world, fell for it. We were the shining beacon, the city on the hill, the biggest economy, the champion of democracy, the general all-around do-good guys of the 50’s. Everybody loved us and we loved us. Or at least so we told ourselves.
The fifties cemented America’s self-image as the benign biggest bestest country ever, the melting pot, the energetic inventive nation that had thrown off the shackles of old-world corruptions, tossed the aristocracy on the dung heap of history, and was innocent and pure. We gave generously to others, developed the Marshall Plan for Europe, and turned Japan into a nation of Peaceniks.
We were a Norman Rockwell painting.
We were, of course, utterly self-deluded, mired in the propaganda we had issued about ourselves to others. We were the knights riding in on white horses saving the world from the scourge of Nazism and the Yellow Peril. We wore the white hats, dammit.
I recall in high-school having a final “civics” test which had 100 questions, two of which were the same question phrased differently – it asked why is/was/will be American foreign policy always be formed for the good of the other countries. I replied it isn’t/wasn’t and wouldn’t be, citing some of the warped history they had taught me – for example, the Spanish-American war, which among other things was the first Gulf of Tonkin trick, to be deployed but a few years later. I “missed” this question twice, and one other about who wrote the Virginia Bill of Rights. 3 questions of 100. I was flunked. As I recall I took the matter to the administration but I don’t remember the result. The old lady teacher was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Andy WarholRichard Avedon
In the 50’s, creeping through the back-door of French colonialism, we took over their role in Indo-China, largely in secret. At the same time we overthrew the elected government of Iran, installing an erstwhile Shah who did our bidding and was duly celebrated as modernizing ancient Persia. Our fingers were in Africa and Central and South America, propping up useful dictators. This however did not show up much in the American mind until the 60’s. Pieces occasionally slipped by the censors, but most of America’s dirty work was kept well from view, and what was not was always justified by the Cold War, in which the USSR, our former ally, was demonized. Anything was justified to stop “communism.” And stopping communism was a good excuse to construct a global empire, all in the name of doing good.
The 60’s brought an abrupt ending to America’s introverted dream of itself as the perfect Ozzie and Harriet-land of white-bread harmony. Instead the fixed verities of the 50’s were up-ended as kids grew their hair long, disdained Mad Ave proprieties, and the civil rights movement flared into open warfare against the deep long racist reality of the nation. The “cultural” war was on, challenging the status-quo assumptions of the country regarding race, sex, money, and myriad other “givens” of our society. The seeds for a decades long tectonic shift in what America really is, and how it perceives itself, were planted.
Dallas, 1963Detroit, 1967Los Angeles, 1968Chicago, 1968
Even more frightening for those who found the 50’s a nirvana of normalcy, the actual demographics of the nation were changing colors: the country was slowly becoming non-white. Women were demanding equal status. The old verities of a patriarchal, racist culture were collapsing and anger was in the air. It still is.
The Vietnam war coupled with the civil rights movement, rapidly joined by feminists and gays and other deprived elements of our society quickly ripped the veneer of 1950’s propriety to shreds and laid bare the hypocrisies of the nation. It continues to this day, now shrieked out in headlines quoting the erstwhile President with racist diatribes and misogynist vomit. The 1970’s roiled the nation in the wake of the 60’s and in rode a familiar figure, the cowboy in the white had, to the rescue. This particular cowboy was about as authentic as Wild Bill Cody, hailing from Illinois and Hollywood, a showbiz shill for General Electric and other corporate interests. Sporting an aw-shucks demeanor and an All-American down-home fake accent, Ronald Reagan offered respite from nearly two decades of turmoil. He promised a Shining City on the Hill and trickle-down economics, though except for his own kind – the rich – he actually took a piss on the rest. All the promised showers were golden.
In America’s seeming zig-zag politics – Reagan begot a one-term Bush which led to led to “good old (liberal) boy” Clinton, a sorta two-term “left” wobble that boomeranged to a two-term “right” Bush, Cheney’s inside-job 9/11, briefly stunning the nation into a seeming unity until the real Bolton intent was made clear with a fraudulent WMD-claim war, the catastrophic invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the deep fractures in our social comity stepped up into the glare of the spotlight. Soured on Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” liberals united behind the unheard silver-tongued black candidate, and Obama, at best a center-Republican of yore inside, was readily voted in, the Establishment’s Harvard-trained Manchurian Candidate, who deftly pulled the wool over the fawning liberals so pleased with themselves for showing their I-am-not-a-racist credentials for having voted for him. Of course he could move in next door, though a guy from the hood with a boom box playing rap at the BBQ might not be so welcome.
Obama policies, liberal on the identity politics side, pro-Wall Street and hard-core military-industrial complex War War War on the foreign policy side, (but for Obama discreetly, with drones, off-the-books, black-ops, not spoken of lest the liberals notice) managed to flummox the nation. We were, said he and others, now “post-racial.” For eight years it became socially unPC to murmur anything that could be interpreted as racist or sexist or any violation of someone’s norms. While ample signs pointed to the volcano just beneath the surface of our shared politics, the elite of the Beltway chose not to see it. In private they spoke of “deplorables” and simply missed what had been going on for 40 years behind their backs, off in the backwaters of “fly-over” land, that “globalization” had decimated and left behind. (Read William Kittredge’s 1998 book Who Owns the West for a prescient early view of this.)
The flim-flam snake-oil salesman is embedded into our culture as deeply as anything: American as apple-pie. Right down to our bedrock myths of ourselves, the scrappy pilgrims who built up New World from scratch. Forget about the millions of indigenous people who were already here; forget about the millions of slaves. And so on – it is a tired myth woven of lies and self-delusion. Presently we are experiencing its death throes, the shudder of a centuries old society as it faces the mirror and cannot face the image which returns its stare. We are brutal. We are ugly. We are evil.
We are 4.4% of the world’s human population sitting on 7% of its landmass and gorging on 25% of the world’s resources. We do this by having had the economic weight and military force to seize these resources by blackmail, extortion, military threats and when those fail, pure military force. We have done it for some centuries now. We are an empire, and as usual, an evil one. Like all empires we pretend we’re the guys in white hats.
An honest history of ourselves tells us this was always so, and that the heroic stories we concocted for ourselves were false. But before we bow out, we have a last show-biz con-man to survive and his millions of followers, many of them allegedly devout Christians who wallow in resentment and hatred, while clutching the Cross. Hypocrisy, if one reads our history well, is as American as apple pie, too.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
Our poet laureate sang his songs, enticing, beautiful. And they offered one of the many threads which make up the tapestry of our communal delusion. These days his self-celebration has curdled, as it has now many times, into a narcissism of feel-good gestures – yoga and recycling and solar panels and panels of Norman Vincent Peale emulators speaking the newest hip phrases of the same old balm. Atop the curdled pop culture of our time sits a vulgarian impressario, a narcissist of the first rank, ready to lead his base of last-gasp old white racists over the buffalo cliff, taking everyone with him.
America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
There must be some other way to settle this argument.
Burroughs is in Tangiers I don’t think he’ll come back it’s sinister.
Are you being sinister or is this some form of practical joke?
I’m trying to come to the point.
I refuse to give up my obsession.
America stop pushing I know what I’m doing.
America the plum blossoms are falling.
I haven’t read the newspapers for months, everyday somebody goes on trial for murder.
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies.
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I’m not sorry.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet.
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid.
My mind is made up there’s going to be trouble.
You should have seen me reading Marx.
My psychoanalyst thinks I’m perfectly right.
I won’t say the Lord’s Prayer.
I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.
America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over from Russia.
I’m addressing you.
Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candy store.
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie producers are serious.
Everybody’s serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.
Asia is rising against me.
I haven’t got a chinaman’s chance.
I’d better consider my national resources.
My national resources consist of two joints of marijuana millions of genitals an unpublishable
private literature that jetplanes 1400 miles an hour and twentyfive-thousand mental institutions.
I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions of underprivileged who live in my flowerpots under the light of five hundred suns.
I have abolished the whorehouses of France, Tangiers is the next to go.
My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I’m a Catholic.
America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?
I will continue like Henry Ford my strophes are as individual as his automobiles more so they’re all different sexes.
America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500 down on your old strophe
America free Tom Mooney
America save the Spanish Loyalists
America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die
America I am the Scottsboro boys.
America when I was seven momma took me to Communist Cell meetings they sold us garbanzos a handful per ticket a ticket costs a nickel and the speeches were free everybody was angelic and sentimental about the workers it was all so sincere you have no idea what a good thing the party was in 1835 Scott Nearing was a grand old man a real mensch Mother Bloor the Silk-strikers’ Ewig-Weibliche made me cry I once saw the Yiddish orator Israel Amter plain.
Everybody must have been a spy.
America you don’t really want to go to war.
America its them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power mad. She wants to take our cars from out our garages.
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader’s Digest. Her wants our auto plants in Siberia.
Him big bureaucracy running our filling stations.
That no good. Ugh. Him make Indians learn read. Him need big black niggers. Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I’d better get right down to the job.
It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts factories, I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
Allen Ginsburg, Berkeley, January 17, 1956
2 thoughts on “American Pastoral #29”
Wish I could disagree
Another great American Pastoral. Thanks for sending these.
Here’s a New Yorker interview with poet/farmer Wendell Berry that I thought you might be interested in. Contains some of the ideas brought up in your Pastoral. Berry is not an atheist but the article isn’t overtly about religion. Mentions Thomas Merton briefly and he goes to church. Lives on a farm in Kentucky.
Here’s the link if you are interested: