three utopias

The Island

Trying to escape one time from The Most Beautiful City, where we lived like some 21st century equivalent of lotus-eaters, we traveled around until we thought we’d found another place. We drove up a slow straight gravel road from the little seaside town, past open fields and fences and ranks of tall dark firs that all said, “Welcome Home.” The sunlight danced on hedgerows of berry bramble and plots of tassled corn. The sea had the sheen of tarnished silver under a big gray sky swept with darker clouds. On all sides the sea glinted through the trees, two lines of snowcapped peaks towered across the narrow straits, east and west. Our home was an island. We had never been there before.

When we arrived, the people said, “Welcome!” Then we discovered there were many others coming in before and behind us, all following the same road: fields, firs, mountains, water, sky. Yet it was a different road for each. And the place they arrived at was different for each. When they started to speak of it, we looked around: we did not see what they saw, hear what they heard, feel what they felt.

Some began chanting, “Home, my home!” The chant grew louder and louder, till the word was nothing but a moan, a kind of anguish – home was dying in their grasp as they clutched it more tightly, pieces of it crumbling through their fingers – toppling the groves, covering the denuded earth with hardscape. They began to tear what was left out of one another’s hands. The people who had lived there for generations stood quietly looking on, or turned away in despair.

The Cornucopia

Traveling on and away back south in the Northwestern spring, we drove through torrents of rain and slashing winds to find a place to spend the night. Someone told us you could camp for free at the Indian Casino. When we got there, we found it was true: there was a special parking lot where you were allowed to stay in your vehicle overnight, no charge. On the oily cement under the arc lights, with the enormous neon-lit palace looming over us and the air heavy with mist that made its brilliant, pulsing colors soft and dreamlike, we camped.

We went up to the casino to eat. Inside the glazed doors, we were absorbed into a total environment that stormed the senses. Dark caverns filled with noise and three hundred scintillating shrines, each with a single acolyte. A seamless, mazelike Temple of Luck and Pleasure. No defined edges: all the corridors sinuous and circular, leading you back to the omphalos: the slots, the gaming tables, the Keno screens.

There was nothing living visible in there but people. There were some representations of wild animals – along with superheroes, sea monsters, zombies and other totemic beings. Over the bar, there was a fiber optic display that looked like a waterfall.

It was Saturday. It was very crowded. It was hard not to remember Hunter S. Thompson saying that Las Vegas was how the whole country would spend Saturday night, if the Nazis had won the war. The perhaps uniquely post-modern aspect was the atmosphere of Family-Friendly Vice: big tables in the restaurants loaded with kids, who, forbidden from gambling, drinking or smoking, can still eat, play video games, and buy.

The Native owners were not in evidence. White working class people served the drinks, and white working class people bought them. The eyes of each were equally masked with fatigue.

Yet what we had entered was actually another utopia, of personal desire infinitely unleashed. The Cornucopia: The Promise of Something for Everyone.

Outside, the imperfect mountains rose behind, clutching the mist. The shredded wild still clung to them in some distant place, but we could not see or touch it.

The Utopia of Oil

A song from the 1970s is on the car stereo, with extended guitar solos, a melody that appears and disappears in wild, driving riffs, the musicians locked into their instruments, dueling with one another to take the song to a farther, deeper, wilder place, and we are driving south along the California coast now with the blue sea a brilliant promise and it builds and builds as the sunshine explodes till everything is sunshine and we are back in the days when we first heard the song and in our adolescent imaginations roads opened up, endless roads, and we were whirled along them and there was joy in the feel of the wind and the scenery sweeping by like a banner unfurling and the possibility that the journey was endless the moment was endless and the song rises up and up until everything is perfectly balanced, flowing – guitars, hills, road, wheels, wind, sky – and as long as it keeps on rising and building toward some ultimate ecstasy, we can almost forget what we’ve learned in all the downward-drifting decades since: that all roads eventually end or circle back on themselves and our journey had no destination anyway so really we were going nowhere at all.

life after wartime

This piece first appeared on the Dissident Voice and CounterPunch webzines.

Burned all my notebooks
What good are notebooks?
They won’t help me survive
My head is burning
Feels like a furnace
That burning keeps me alive

You haven’t been to war until you’ve learned to flinch at the sound of a traffic helicopter overhead, as your body waits for the pop of machine gun fire spattered on the crowds below.

You haven’t been to war until you fear having your back to the street as you turn your key in the lock of your own front door, because of how easy it would be to take you out from behind as you stand there.

You haven’t been to war until you look into the shit-filled toilet bowl before you flush and imagine a hand on the back of your neck forcing your head down into the filthy water. Holding it there until your lungs burst, and you gasp for air and swallow shit and piss instead. Until your fingers curl periodically with the sensation that someone is about to pull your nails out with a pair of pliers.

You haven’t been to war until you transpose any loud sound in your dreams to a pounding on your door as the troops storm in to drag you from your bed and fling you into a waiting van.

You haven’t been to war until you wait, behind the thud of distant fireworks at the ballpark, to hear the scream of the diving planes, the shriek of the guided missiles, the rumble and roar of the tanks as they roll in.

You haven’t been to war until you look around guardedly in a crowded street and know without a shadow of a doubt that anyone you see, anyone, could be about to kill you.

And because you haven’t been to war, you cower at the images on the TV screen and you say to everyone you know (all of whom, who haven’t been to war either, will nod supportively and say, yes, of course, that’s true): the police, the soldiers, they have to do whatever they must to protect us. Who are we to judge them? We are not in their place.

But if you have been to war, all of this is waiting for you, all day every day, lurking in the silence of the suburban streets where your neighbors are invisible hostiles, or the clangorous city streets where no one looks anyone else in the eye, where the suit on his phone bumps into you and moves on past without breaking his stride, in the plastic-coated food, and the gas-soaked pavement and the cheesy, piped-in music everywhere – so one day you flip out, you say no more terror, no more dread, no more waiting for the ax to fall. Not enough to go for a drive and blast the car stereo till your gut shakes. Not enough to drink yourself stupid and beat the wife or girlfriend bloody when the rage takes hold.

You plan your operation; you assemble your weaponry (so easy, that part!) Then you head for the highway, for the demonstration, for the shopping mall. You know exactly what to do, because we gave you the best training in the world. We built you, we sent you out there. Ambush. That’s how we roll. Catch the enemy by surprise.

And because we taught you what justice is: it’s kill the other guy, the one who wants to kill you. It’s as simple as that, the justice we taught you, our military justice. You don’t have to ask why he wants to kill you, what made him that way. Just take him out. Make him pay for making you afraid for your life. It’s him or you. If you learned nothing else during your stint, you learned that.

You know it’s a hopeless mission, and you will probably die in the attempt. But what kind of life can you have anyway, now that the war is everywhere?

Others will come after you, and finish what you started.

Rolling Stone, July 11, 2016: Micah Xavier Johnson, thanks to his military training, knew what he was doing, targeting and dispatching police officers with ruthless efficiency. Footage from the attack showing Johnson weaving in and out of pillars and shooting one officer from behind is a brutal testament to what powerful weaponry in skilled hands can do in the right environment, against even well-trained and armed opponents.

in the white city

This piece first appeared on the Dissident Voice and Counterpunch webzines.

In the White City, all the days are beautiful days. The weather is temperate and mild. The parks are spacious and gleam with care. People stroll with elegant animals, talking on the latest devices, filling the cafes at all hours of the day. In the coffeehouses where the best coffee in the world is brewed cup-by-cup for them, they sit in parallel rows like they did as children in school, seeing no one else now, gazing intently into the white screens of their gleaming devices.

There are hardly any old people or schoolchildren left in the White City. Everyone is slim and trim.

Except for one woman, standing outside a busy expensive grocery store where all the food is healthy, her hands clenched on the handle of a shopping cart which does not contain healthy food, or any food. Her face is twisted in madness. Her clothes are filthy. She screams and screams.

The busy shoppers gaze blankly past her, checking their devices as they go in and out of the gleaming store, their brown bags filled with healthy food.

In the Black City, whole blocks are empty, the houses crumble, the yards are full of weeds, the police are dressed like storm troopers in a movie of the future and tanks crawl the streets. The water is cut off when you can’t pay for it. The weather veers to wild extremes, the summers sweltering, the houses turning into ovens, the winters freezing, the houses burning through precious fuel that, like the water, is the difference between life and death and yet, unlike life and death, is not available to everyone for free.

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11 of 9 is the end of summer

It is New England, a bright green and blue day somewhere on the coast. The roads are empty—the summer crowds are gone. There is a chill that never leaves the shadows now, even though standing in the full sun you can still feel the summer heat on your skin. The sky is almost cloudless today, everything gleams. Just like it was that day—remember? There is some obligatory display for the occasion: flags, bunting on houses and stores. Most unsettling is the digital flag “waving” on the LED screen in front of the chain store outlets for Super Cuts, Dunkin Donuts, and Cellular One. Remember, America, it warns silently: We are who you really are. Be thankful for us – defend us.

Other exhortations we pass are only a back country jumble of non sequitur: “God Bless America – Eat More Lobster.” At least the effusion of patriotism there is traceable to some muddled human being, not to a software program in a corporate head office far away. It’s difficult to say exactly why that should be comforting, however.

On the radio as we drive, a community radio station plays peacenik songs, goddamn hippies. Most apropos: Jackson Browne’s “Lives in the Balance:”

On the radio talk shows and TV
You hear one thing again and again
How the USA stands for freedom
And we come the aid of our friends…

There’s a shadow on the faces
Of the men who send the guns
To the wars that are fought in places
Where their business interests run…

There’s a shadow on the faces
Of the men who fan the flames
Of the wars that are fought in places
We can’t even say the names

A few elderly couples sit by the sea or stroll the shopping arcades in the little coastal towns. All the families have gone home now, the kids are back in school, Mom and Dad back at work. Every other house is for sale. The empire is hollowing itself out, but slowly. There’s still a long, long way to fall.

We’ll go spinning down, clutching our devices, putting smiley faces on our text messages to friends, family, co-workers… never believing, all the way down, that we could ever, ever, see ourselves grubbing in the dirt, cold, and darkness reserved for the ones we send our children to kill.

Oh, this beautiful land, this beautiful day.

get there if you can and see the land

Just After the War with the…

In March 1991, the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force was a guest on the radio program “Desert Island Disks.” After informing his host that his job was “fun” and that he “loved to go to work in the morning,” he discussed the “crystalline quality” of the violin arpeggios in Mozart’s symphony in G.

Now That the West Has Been Won

Sign on a truck in Spokane: Shred-Away Mobile Data Destruction • Peace of Mind • Bonded • Insured.

Sign at Little Big Horn National Monument: Mass Grave—Keep Off.

The People

Underneath the narcotized, blank-faced, overfed, undernourished, paved over, strip-malled, clearcut, theme-parked, multiplexed, muzaked, chain-stored, downsized, dumbed-down, gun crazy, vacant lot, xenophobic, ghettoized, market driven— and so on to no last term— skin of America, is there still a heartbeat? Yes, yes, but it’s faint, arrhythmic. Meanwhile the dead continue to walk so heavily on the groaning earth, every thundering footstep exacting a terrible price somewhere.

The Prize

Third Prize: A life of constant work, failing marriages, failing health, distant children, always on the verge of complete collapse, but you don’t go hungry, you get to keep your house, your car, your TV, your beer night, your hunting weekend, your once in a blue moon trip to Vegas.

Second Prize: A comfortable, successful, technologically modulated, mediocre existence. Maybe your kids like you.

First Prize: The “ultimate aphrodisiacs”—power, celebrity, extraordinary profit. Honors laid at your feet. When you laugh, respectable senators shake with laughter, when you cry, the little children die in the street.

get there if you can and see the land: 2

The Pursuit of Loneliness

Look at the glazed eyes of the shoppers as they move down the aisles. Their dream state is disrupted only by a nagging sense of irritation that the gulf between what they were promised and what they really have continues to widen every day.

America is locked in this dream, shuddering with the night sweats, moaning in its sleep, but it doesn’t wake.

In the Great Suburb

It is not real. It is a comfort to know that none of it has any reality whatever. The people have, though. As I watch them passing dreamily down the shining aisles of vast supermarkets and pharmacies, they are naked, and oh, so fragile.

The Mowers

The low hum of lawn mowers is sine qua non in the suburbs, like the mullahs’ daily calls to the faithful from the spires of Marrakesh or Istanbul. It brings on the same meditative state in the hearer, the primal comfort of a known and ordered universe.

Within and without, all hell is breaking loose; pathologies gnaw at alienated human hearts like zombies from a hundred movies. The paradigm shudders, rocks— but does not fall. The mowers in their hundreds of thousands drone on, in the golden afternoons, sturdily shoring up the expensive boundaries of Adam’s dominion, maintaining the Pax Romana, holding back the twilight of empire from the ragged American shore.

The End of the Road (Trip)

In Ohio, setting out, the great highway a river of glinting steel, Bruce Springsteen sang “Glory Days” on the radio, and you could feel the yearning sadness powering the flow of traffic. There was a reason for the westward draw, the desperate search; there buried under junk and ruin was the lost promise, the chance to soar and shine, and to love. The America that was dead before it was born, murdered in the womb of conquest, but whose possibility still haunted the dream-life of drunks and whores and suburban office workers alike. All felt the human sadness of the losing struggle to thrive, not just survive, not just buy and die.

But after seven states of bloody roadkill: a delicately lovely red fox in Indiana, a grim coyote in Utah, a truckload of twisted and crumpled deer, and the guts of uncounted small creatures: rabbits, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, raccoons, opossums, birds, cats, dogs, moles, beavers—plastered to the asphalt, after two thousand miracle-less miles of strip malls and cold-lit motels that hummed and buzzed at the center of their silent, oil-stained parking lots, we made it to the West Coast and watched as the murderous, gleaming traffic raced in circles up and down the shore. Still fleeing, still searching, but nothing left to look or hope for now, just that frenzy of frustration at having arrived.

And then the trip was over, with no melancholy or forlorn hope to feel, only exhaustion, here at the end of America.

id culture

From the day we are born in America, entitlement bangs like a sledgehammer on the raw nerve of our malleable brains. What it produces has nothing to do with self-esteem, that endlessly bandied term, which really only arises from the capacity to esteem others. It has everything to do with the growth of our poor, thoughtless ids. The culture of consumption we have created sustains itself by keeping as many of us as possible anxious children who musthave-it-now. Consumers are the best kind of slaves: slaves who think they are free, slaves who think they are important. “Where everyone has status,” as James Baldwin says, “it is also perfectly possible that no one has.”

The sheer cultural weight of this phenomenon means that it touches every person: rich, middle class, and even poor; of all ethnicities, genders, ages; “responsible” and “irresponsible” people. It plays itself out somewhat differently according to class and subculture, but we are all subjected to it; it is the one unifier in an otherwise not remotely unified society. It is the egalitarianism of the marketplace: the total saturation of every life with the consumerist ideology.