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Tag Archives: American Exceptionalism

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Since the last of these ruminations on the state of the American nation too much water has run under the bridge for the bridge to have accommodated it.  It’s inundated now, washed out by the tsunami of the Trump era’s endless bombast and show-biz shit-show. Having reduced our official politicians to the empty-suits they already were, Republican and Democrat, Trump entered the official institutions of government as the bull-in-China-shop, trampling everything in sight.  In doing so he has unmasked the emptiness of those structures as well as he stripped the Republicans naked and then left Hillary Clinton in shock and a majority of the public aghast.  On taking office he has carried out the same wrecking policies, in a blurred shuffle of names, placing a sequence of foxes in the hen house, such that the cabinet is in truth a dismantling organization along the lines of the quickly departed Steve Bannon’s desired “deconstruction of the administrative state.”  In practice this commenced in deleting regulations mostly over corporate behavior, de-funding of numerous social welfare programs, and now, coming to a peak,  direct attacks on the rule of law and the discarding of Constitutional restraints on executive power.  It is, in simple terms, an attempt to institute an American Fascism.

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Trump arrives in West Palm Beach, Florida

I spent the period from mid-October 2017 to March 2018, once again on the road in America, zig-zagging on back roads, visiting small towns and big cities.  It was a dispiriting journey which left me exhausted with America, its foibles and schizophrenia, its beauties and horrors.  The drumbeat of Trump’s malignant personality synchronized daily with the headlines in the news: school shootings, the stock market riding high, then dropping on an utterance or Tweet, the chronic postings of police violence against blacks, the ICE roundups of immigrants, and the scab of America’s built-in racism exposed and open, our psychic maggots swarming the dead corpse, all accompanied to the global warming “weird” new weather.  Through it all it felt the nation was floundering, flummoxed by its new Fuhrer who seemed to emit new offenses every day and yet remain unscathed. His alleged approval rate climbed from 33% to 40.

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My journey had been, in part, to attempt yet again to make a final essay film about America, PLAIN SONGS.  I’d begun in 2012, failed; attempted again in 2014, and failed again; again in 2016.  Each time the ever more incoherent mess of American society had reared up in my mind, numbing me into wondering what possible purpose would be served in making a critique of this phenomenon when it was clear the place was already drowning in the thunderous noise of its own illnesses, and that no matter what, no voice would ever puncture its schizoid death-rattle.  There was nothing to say as there would be no one to hear.

 

To Elsie

The pure products of America
go crazy–
mountain folk from Kentucky or the ribbed north end of
Jersey
with its isolate lakes and

valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
old names
and promiscuity between

devil-may-care men who have taken
to railroading
out of sheer lust of adventure–

and young slatterns, bathed
in filth
from Monday to Saturday

to be tricked out that night
with gauds
from imaginations which have no

peasant traditions to give them
character
but flutter and flaunt

sheer rags succumbing without
emotion
save numbed terror

under some hedge of choke-cherry
or viburnum–
which they cannot express–

Unless it be that marriage
perhaps
with a dash of Indian blood

will throw up a girl so desolate
so hemmed round
with disease or murder

that she’ll be rescued by an
agent–
reared by the state and

sent out at fifteen to work in
some hard-pressed
house in the suburbs–

some doctor’s family, some Elsie
voluptuous water
expressing with broken

brain the truth about us–
her great
ungainly hips and flopping breasts

addressed to cheap
jewelry
and rich young men with fine eyes

as if the earth under our feet
were
an excrement of some sky

and we degraded prisoners
destined
to hunger until we eat filth

while the imagination strains
after deer
going by fields of goldenrod in

the stifling heat of September
somehow
it seems to destroy us

It is only in isolate flecks that
something
is given off

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

William Carlos Williams

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Some years ago – well actually it was decades – I had publicly spoken and written about this likely prospect, of the break up of the American nation, its culture and society.  I was, of course, deemed crazy, “extreme,” unable to see the unique wonder and beauty of our experiment, our “Exceptionalism.”  Instead I rattled on about the dubious wonders of our mode of American capitalism, about our fraudulent hoist-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps hokey “individualism,” or about our original sins of obliterating the natives of this land and pretending we “discovered” it, and of slavery, or of the infinitude of other things which constitute the real America and its history.  I’d done this since I was 16 or so.  And now, as history is catching up with me I find many voices emerging, seeing this reality, and the horrible political and psychic bill which confronts us.

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I grew up in a military family and in turn had an early education in how its values work, as a corrosive system of obedience, submission to “higher authorities,” brutalization both physical and mental.  I read the journals my father had, his “professional” magazines, and suffered his military psychoses.  Those journals read to me like a Kafkaesque nightmare in which the totally crazed plotted out, inside the system they lived in, the most depraved of thoughts.  And they not only thought them, but did them with the authority of the government. Gulf of Tonkin. My Lai. Experiments on soldiers.  Hiding the mess of nuclear facilities. And on and on. After all, they were the “muscle” of the government, there to step in when more discreet methods – economic extortion, silent “ops,”  weighted “diplomacy” – failed.  The list of American crimes in this realm is near endless.  Of our whole history, we have not been at war for 22 years.   The US military today cannot account for 21 trillion dollars, which it allegedly received.  It, like the rest of the nation, is utterly corrupted and corrupting.  And of all the institutions of the nation, it is the military which is “most respected”!

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While this political cyclone whirls across the country, the superficial life-goes-on goes on. While it seems a dark cloud hangs overhead, a cloud of uncertainty, a cloud of astonishment – our police do this !  –  so many people think that ! – beneath all seems “normal.”  People go to their jobs, to cafes and restaurants and movies; they meet with their friends, make love, live, die and do all the things human animals always do.  But hovering around is something else, “normality” is disrupted.  The ghost of the dysfunction of the Weimar Republic lingers off-screen, and for most Americans is  utterly unseen.  After all, we are “Exceptional” and exempt from the usual forces of history.  And yes, we are indeed exceptionally self-deluded.

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For myself I had seen this coming for some time, in some form or another, though I could not have figured out just what.  The normalcy of most Americans is that they live in an economic and military empire, which wars endlessly (though it does its best usually to keep it hidden), in order to produce these figures:

The USA is less than 5% of the world’s population.

It occupies 7% of the earths land surface.

It consumes 25% of the earth’s resources.

America is chronically cited as the world’s biggest economy, the lynch-pin of the global economic system, the most powerful and richest nation on earth.   These things are all owing to our imperial economic/military status:  like a good Mafia system, we offer deals one can’t refuse, on pain of “regime change” or flat out obliteration by a military far bigger and more powerful than any other.  Our “normalcy” is built upon this hard, ugly reality, and making a corrective to this would involve such a major change of our lives that most simply cannot comprehend it.  Even nice liberals.

 “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”   –  Upton Sinclair

This needs only a modest bit of tinkering to describe Americans and their place in the world.  In fact it is used often in political talk employed to explain and excuse our frequent foreign policy of blowing up places which decline to roll over and play dead when we extort them for natural resources.  We say something about “our national interests” and threats to “the American way of life” and send in the military.  In the Sinclair quote we need only change the word “salary” to “life-style” or “American way of life.”

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“American capitalism is predatory, and American politics are corrupt: The same thing is true in England and the same in France; but in all these three countries the dominating fact is that whenever the people get ready to change the government, they can change it. The same thing is not true of Germany, and until it was made true in Germany, there could be no free political democracy anywhere else in the world — to say nothing of any free social democracy. My revolutionary friends who will not recognize this fact seem to me like a bunch of musicians sitting down to play a symphony concert in a forest where there is a man-eating tiger loose. For my part, much as I enjoy symphony concerts, I want to put my fiddle away in its case and get a rifle and go out and settle with the tiger.”                                          –  Upton Sinclair

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“The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store. Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.”  –  Upton Sinclair
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Today’s newspaper, on the heels of certain balloon’s floated by Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, announced that the Maximum Leader declares that he cannot be indicted, subpoenaed, or anything else that irritates him.  He has declared that he is the law.
The murmur of the pundits thus far has been muted; the public carries on.  The Brownshirts march.  (This is not metaphorical: Charlottesville, myriad cellphone shots of police-state behavior coast-to-coast, and Trump’s support of this all testify to this as an institutionalized reality.)
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“…realized that this country has gone so flabby that any gang daring enough and unscrupulous enough, and smart enough not to seem illegal, can grab hold of the entire government and have all the power and applause and salutes, all the money and palaces and willin’ women they want.”     –  Upton Sinclair
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On leaving America a few months ago, I had already concluded that the film that had partly prompted my journey was useless.  Perhaps that was a function of my age, now 75, or perhaps of an over-due “artistic burnout”.  Or perhaps simply an exhaustion with a life-long hard look at the country, society and culture from which I had emerged.
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While in the face of the affronts which Trump and his administration deliver to whatever it is Americans imagine their country to be, one would normally be a bit sanguine, and think, “Oh, there will be a blue wave” and other such thoughts directed toward finding a “correction.”   Just as many imagined a Hillary Clinton victory would have kept the ship of state sailing pleasantly on – Hillary back in the campaign was eager to assert America’s “exceptionalism” and would surely have carried on with the empire as usual.
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As a life-long surveyor of American society and culture, as well as being quite acquainted with other societies, I am not so “optimistic” that America will “self-correct” in a manner that would actually be positive.  Instead I think it will shift into – more so than it already is – a form of fascistic state in which police-power intimidates the comfortable to silence, “undesirables” are rounded up or simply erased with power (happens everyday in petty transactions of those people in their dealings with police and other “authorities”) and rather quickly “polite society” joins in.  One of the more remarkable aspects of American “exceptionalism” is that it blathers in inverse proportion about “freedom” while being a desperately conformist society.   When the pressure is on, most will fall in line.
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It seems to be something of the nature of our species, and its behavior, that we collectively have a periodic need to have a major blood-shedding.  This compulsion seems largely related to our tribal instincts, marking off “others” from “our group.”  This is clearly what has overtaken America, and whatever connective tissue had for a while appeared to have bound us together, is now so frayed as to be non-existent.  We go through the motions of “national unity” but there is none.  We are at war with ourselves, a condition normally called a “civil war.”   Of course in wars of any kind, civility is usually one of the first casualties.  In wars people “naturally” to atrocious things.  There is no reason at all to think we’ll be any different.
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If interested in the thoughts and process of the attempt to make Plain Songs, see this:
To see the essay films which it was to be a continuation of, see these:

 

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In a profound miscalculation, the myriad powers-that-be in the USA have inadvertently ushered in a new era, definitively abolishing the general framework that governed America and the globe since World War Two.  Those powers – often masked from public view – had constructed a complex social/economic/political edifice composed of corporate business interests, the military-industrial complex (which naturally includes corporate interests), and media (corporately owned), all bound together with an ideological glue of American nationalism embodied in a kind of mindless patriotism of flag, (and for some Bible, guns and grits), and capitalism.  As famously stated, “The business of America is business.”

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It was the ideology of American Exceptionalism, which Hillary Clinton recently extolled, and as the heaving crowds of Trump’s fans echoed as they chanted USA USA USA!  This ideology is seen expressed in the countless VFW halls in small-town America, in the national genuflection to our military – “the finest and best” – and in the blind and usually totally provincial insistence that the United States is the greatest country on earth, goddammit!   Most insistently this is said by those who never set foot in another place, unless in the military.

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Since 1945, at the conclusion of the WW2, America stood as the singular industrial power still standing, with marginal losses, and wielding nuclear weapons to boot.  It had put the 30’s Depression era aside and largely unchallenged it proceeded to install itself as an unstated empire, taking most of Britain’s holdings and those of others.  The emergence of the cold war with the Soviet Union, and then the Chinese, propelled this process, which had moved rapidly in the 1950’s, such that the former general and Republican President, Eisenhower, cautioned us against the dangers of our emerging military-industrial complex.  We paid no heed, and in the following decades the linkage of the military, corporate interests and the media were bound ever tighter, as we expanded our military force beyond all reason aside from maintaining a stranglehold on global natural resources – especially oil.  And we sought to maintain political control with the installation of puppet governments game to kow-tow to Uncle Sam.  While we intervened in South East Asia, in the Middle East, in Central and South America, and Africa, our corporate controlled media largely dismissed what we were doing by simply not reporting it.  America was too busy imagining itself as Ozzie and Harriet while it stitched together its far-flung “business holdings” backed with its military might.   In the aftermath of the American loss in Vietnam, the collusion between the military-industrial complex and the media became such that for the most part our adventures abroad were simply not reported, as the body-counts in Vietnam had proved toxic to our imperial ambitions.  Instead the American public was led into a fog of permanent propaganda, whether officially, from the mouths of government speakers, or unofficially in the onslaught of 24/7 television, Hollywood films, and talk radio.  We were “exceptional” so we told ourselves, somehow exempt from judgement and from history, or from the consequences of our actions on the world stage.

Americans were constantly told theirs was the richest, best country on earth.  They were not told that they were but 5% of the world’s population while they consumed 25% of the globe’s resources.  They were not told that in order to acquire this imbalanced share of the world’s wealth that it required robbery, rape, mayhem and political knavery of the worst kinds.  Nope, instead they were told that America was “good,” a shining city on a hill, and that whenever we were forced to intervene out in the big bad world it was to be the White Hat bringing the blessings of democracy or freedom or something “good” to those we were bombing and robbing blind.

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When 9/11 came our slumbering public was blind-sided, completely unaware of American meddling since the early 50’s (and far earlier) in the middle-east.  In turn the vast majority were easy marks for Bush’s imaginary WMD and Rumsfeld’s it’ll-pay-for-itself easy war.  From the fraud of Bush’s failed Presidency, Americans leaped at the do-good chance to erase the stain of our slave state origins and deep racism, and elected a good Harvard trained establishment man, Barack Obama.  Nice as his outward appearances were, Barack was a company man, and did his duty while liberals swooned and ignored the brass knuckle business being quietly conducted – drone assassinations, more military meddling, economic strong arming, and, well, America as usual.  We were “defending our national interests,” however far from our own shores.  “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli” is how the marine hymn has it, since forever.

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In 2016, still limping from the 2008 economic collapse with which the Bush administration departed, with many still seething at the failure of Obama to pursue those responsible (bankers, big corporate execs), and others likewise angered at the failure to bring Bush and company to account, the US political atmosphere was transparently smoldering with anti-establishment resentment.  The success of Trump in the Republican primaries, as well as of Sanders with the Democrats, was evidence enough for even the thickest minded.  And yet the Democrats, enmeshed in their narrow horizon Beltway vision, did backroom dirt to shove Sanders aside, and plowed on with their anointed one, HRC.  Backed with a phalanx of political pros, pollsters, billionaire funds, pundits, and their own arrogant presumptions, they poured hundreds of millions of dollars into advertisements, a slick convention, and endless polls – all for naught.  Like the CIA with the collapse of the Soviet Union, all the professional wisdom in the world failed to perceive the obvious, and Clinton came up short in the Electoral College on November 7th.

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The shock waves still reverberate as Donald John Trump prepares to take on the Presidency, surrounded with sleaze in the form of Rudolph Giuliani, Chris Christie, and a cluster-fuck of others, including the editor of a strident right-wing website, Breitbart, and a Vice-Presidential side-kick ready to attempt to impose mid-western fundamentalist Christianism on the nation.   I would not pretend to predict what Trump will or won’t do, or what it will do to our polity.  During the campaign (and well before) he did open a can of very ugly worms, and in doing so legitimized them as OK for public discourse.  I doubt he can, as President, make a U-turn, and stuff all the vile things he has said and done back into that can.  Welcome to Pandora’s not-nice box.  Of course the truth is that this can of worms was sitting there under the pressure cooker of the nice world of PCism.  Naturally it stewed and festered, and now we will have its off-spring running the White House – Mr Bannon looks to be Chief of Staff for President Trump, which promises a very rough ride.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the crowd at the South Carolina African American Chamber of Commerce in North Charleston, South Carolina, September 23, 2015. REUTERS/Randall Hill TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Who to blame?  Most obviously, first in line is the Democratic National Committee which was as corrupt as Trump suggested.  Hillary Clinton was their girl, and despite the obvious evidence of Sanders’ primary successes, and those of Trump, they stuck to their insiders game plan, awash with money, all those experienced “professionals” and drove themselves and the country, and perhaps the world, into a ditch.  They did it in plain sight, and carried on despite numerous warnings that it was not the season for more “Change You Can Believe In” nor for “Stronger Together” sloganeering, but for up-ending the Establishment.  Ah, but if you are the Establishment, what do you do?  As demonstrated in this election, you stick your head up your butt and pretend it ain’t happening.

But it was, and rather than taking the path offered by Sanders, the DNC persisted, and handed us Trump on a silver plate.

Some of the rest of the blame belongs to the American right-wing which, since Reagan, has flooded the national psyche with hysterical radio, Fox, et al, with 24/7 propaganda, and, aided and abetted by the Clinton gang, let corporate interests run roughshod over the public interest in the form of trade agreements, privatizing education and prisons and whatever else they could grab, producing a dumbed-down populace in thrall to celebrity and money and the miracle of capitalism.  Trump is the natural result.

That Trump, a Queen’s kid with a massive chip on his shoulder and a chronic loser himself, should pick up the chips may seem surprising but in the warped landscape of America circa 2016, it is perfectly logical even if his syntax and vocabulary aren’t.  Frankly half of America cannot speak English decently and I am not talking about the ones who happen to have Spanish or some Asian language as their first tongue.  Nor am I talking only about the uneducated whom Mr Trump asserts he loves, but rather the millions of dubiously “educated” college kids who are gifted with grade inflation while being unable to construct a coherent paragraph in our corrupted universities, many of which are more interested in football income than in the “liberal arts.”  Reading, writing and arithmetic hardly covers the bases.   These folks want “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” in which to obscure their helicopter parented ignorance.   In this America Trump is a natural.  His vulgarity, sexism, racism all slides nicely in with a large portion of the population who in fact think and feel just like that, especially when put into the pressure cooker of the new gig economy.   Trump has given them their voice, and promises they they too will enter the Valhalla of a glittery gold-plated coal mine or factory, and a future in the New Again Great America.

Well, good luck with that.  Though, frankly, while there likely would have been some softening of the rougher edges for some had Clinton won, those who voted for Trump in anticipation of working in the West Virginia or Kentucky mines, are more likely to find out they’ve been mystically turned into canaries.   In fact it appears that all Americans have been so morphed, as we move into the post-WW2 “American Century” of the last 75 years, and enter a new era, with all the volatility which radical changes always bring.   Whether Americans will take kindly to being weaned from their imperially enforced quarter of the global goodies for their 20th of the globe’s population is doubtful.  Or for giving most of that “stuff” to a tiny minority of people – like their new President – while in time honored fashion, they feast on the crumbs falling from the table.

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Mr Trump’s first wife, Ivana, tells us that her ex-husband’s bed time reading when they shared their lives, was Mein Kampf,  the story of an aggrieved failed artist and corporal who went on to leave a significant imprint on history.  Mr Schicklegruber reinvented himself in a highly theatrical manner, in a period of extreme economic and political stress in his time and culture.  The sophisticated world of Beethoven, Hegel, etc. succumbed to his wiles and his prejudices.  And paid a price.

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Donald Trump was a kid from the Queens who got a nice head-start from his hustling father.  Bedazzled by the classier folks across the East River, he moved to Manhattan, out to impress those people, with his string of sexy babes, his golden towers, his beauty contests and casinos.  His nouveau-riche garishness failed to win their favor, and while happy to play with his money, Donald was never really accepted by the toney East Siders and Wall Street honchos. The chip on his shoulder grew bigger and bigger, and he had more and more to prove, revenge to take, scores to settle.  He ran for President, and despite being reviled by almost everyone – the Republican establishment, the pundits, the intellectuals, the security experts, Wall Street, the hipwasie, the Democrats, and the Hollywood clans and monster pop stars, not to mention the minorities whom he joyfully slandered – he won.

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My crystal ball is occluded, though history provides some clues where things might go.  That well thumbed book at his bedside might be a place to look.

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Item pertinent to this, worth the read:

http://forsetti.tumblr.com/post/153181757500/on-rural-america-understanding-isnt-the-problem