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Tag Archives: Upton Sinclair

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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” do 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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The long season of America’s electoral process has finally finished, and having dispatched at first the comical “best” of the Grand Old Party in an embarrassing sequence of primary “debates,” Donald Trump, regarded as the least likely candidate, and the easiest to beat by the Democratic National Committee, has emerged from the cultural rubble as victor.  Much of the nation appears to be in shock, having been told by most of the national media that Trump’s chances were nil.  The vast realm of what bi-coastals call “fly-over country” – the swathe from Eastern Pennsylvania on to the Rockies, and as well, all the West until you get to the sliver which hugs the Pacific Coast beyond the Sierras and Cascades – usually dismissively derided as uncultured and beneath contempt, all rose up to vote for Trump.  And given the oddity of the old slave-holder derived Electoral College, a minority of voters were able to secure a majority of the votes in this institution and hand the Presidency to Trump.  While geographically rather amiss, it appears indeed the South did rise again.  The irony that it did so through the hands of a Queens NYC crony capitalist is perhaps a bitter pill better left unmarked.

 

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From Upton Sinclair’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935): “But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word ‘Fascism’ and preached enslavement to Capitalism under the style of Constitutional and Traditional Native American Liberty.”

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Having known back-road America – that fly-over turf – now for 5 decades, living there or passing through on one-laner’s or dirt roads, with many friends living “out there,” I am well acquainted with the slow degradation of life that has happened in rural America.  Railroad services stopped, Main Streets gone dilapidated and empty, family farms absorbed into giant corporations, dwindling wild life, pollution from big-ag run-off, the blossoming of WalMarts and Dollar Stores, trailer parks, a plague of meth and alcohol, and all the signifiers of genuine social collapse.   In the hinterlands of the country this is what globalization wrought – devastation.  And at the same time an ever increasing political and social marginalization of those areas which did not partake of the economic benefits of this process.   Or in the rust-belt as factories closed, either shipped abroad to cheaper labor markets, or robotized, those whose livelihoods were lost were simply ignored, racked up in the statistics as un- or under-employed.  The coastal pundits suggested more education (or re-education?) while they turned college into another profit generator while running up a gigantic student-debt tally.  In the last few years, as the meth and then opioid epidemics hit this mostly white sector of the country, along with the suburbs, there was a sudden bit of attention directed to this population, as the nation’s pundits tried to figure out just what was going wrong.  If they ever left their cocoons of upper-middle class comfort and pulled their noses out of the academic studies and books du jour, and stayed in a low-class motel while slumming in the sticks, they might just begin to get a glimpse of what Donald Trump so expertly manipulated into his electoral win.  As Michael Moore, and others who actually know this world, knew and predicted, Trump played right into the zeitgeist of the national discontent that has been building for decades.

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Having willfully stirred the hornet’s nest of the nation’s traditional bass-line of racism, Trump has brought to the foreground a social poison which remains broadly with us – however much the previous years attempted to gloss it over, and despite the purely racist behavior of the GOP when confronted with Obama.  Dance as they would around “policy” it was clear from day one that McConnell and company were driven by hard-core racism to oppose anything Obama proposed.   And now, with the genie let loose from a decade and more of political correctness suppression, we are seeing a rising wave of racist acts across the country.  I am not surprised.  On my back road trips I saw graffiti such as “Obama” with a rifle cross-hair in the “O”, and other such outward signs that we were not at all in a “post-racial” time.  Trump has played on this repeatedly, and will surely continue to do so as he consolidates his power.  While he meekly disavows such things, he simultaneously goads them on with scarcely an effort to mask his real intent and views.    His cabinet choices underline this quite clearly.

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America is at a crossroads.  Its decaying infrastructure is emblematic of a crumbling social contract, one that has frayed beyond recognition.  Were we a small country, like Italy under Berlusconi, it would be bad for many people, but manageable and to some degree even amusing.  But the USA is not a small country, and what happens in it impacts not only Americans, but the world.  As indicated by the last decade and more, as we oscillated from GW Bush, pressed under the sway of 9/11 (probably avoidable if it had not been desired by certain parties within the government) into a mindless war in the Middle-East, and then an economic collapse propelled by mindless consumerism and dirty banking, and then to Barack Obama, where for 8 years the tensions of the nation simmered under a cover of benign shoe shuffles from the White House while the GOP Tea Partied its way to a fundamentalist polka of racism, the Nixonian “Southern Strategy” on steroids, blanketed in a phony Christianity and “conservatism” dictated by the likes of Rush Limbaugh.  I might note that in cross-country jaunts the only occupants of the radio airwaves are right-wing talkers like Rush, and sleazy Christian preachers, interspersed with today’s awful rock and roll and C&W.  TV is Fox and Fox only.  The great swathe of fly-over country has been truly brainwashed, almost without opposition, and their embrace of the Republican Party – whomever it coughs up – is virtually religious, an act of unquestioning and thoughtless belief.   That’s what’s wrong with Kansas (and NE MO IND WYO etc.).

With the theatrics of the 2016 Presidential Election the dead rot of our political culture was laid naked – the vacuity of the Republican candidates, including Trump, was unfathomable in its shallowness, and while Clinton and Sanders sparred with some intelligence, it was still carefully within the range of the old era polit-speak, though Sanders sometimes stepped slightly outside the parameters of conventional Democratic Party parsing.   Trump’s vulgarism and crudeness swept all this aside, his yahoo base as sexist and crude for the most part as he himself.  And as he sold the snake oil, they bought, without reservation, taken in by a carnival barker from precisely the same elite, East Coast, moneyed people of whom they complained so loudly.  Trump would, so he said, be their spokesman, he’d take care of them, bring back the factories, put those people in their places, build a wall.  He loved the uneducated.

If his pick of cabinet members and other advisors is remotely indicative of the policies of the coming years, those fly-over folks have been taken to the cleaners like the rawest country rubes by a real New York city-slicker, as archetypal an American story as ever. Mr. Country, meet Rev. Gantry….

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