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Tag Archives: Thomas Hart Benton

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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.

US WAR SPENDING

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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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Detroit scenes for tap-through on budget restrictions
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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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Benton, Thomas Hart; SHS#006618, CD#197(art)
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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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