by Bruce Patterson, April 11, 2012
“Our minds are the admission price of life on earth.” — Herman Hesse (paraphrase)
You’re hiking alone and without a rifle in the East African savanna. The wind is at your back and, 100 yards ahead, you spot a bull rhinoceros. His beady eyes are locked in on you and, using his two nose horns as a gunsight, he breaks into a charge. At max you’ve got seven seconds before he reaches you: what do you do? Do you run away in panic, wait until the last instant and then sidestep him like a brave matador, or drop to your knees and beg for divine intervention?
If you know anything about the character and proclivities of rhinoceros, you freeze. The humble creature’s black & white eyesight is so feeble that he has trouble distinguishing stationary objects, and he’s so absentminded that by the time he’s 25 yards away and up to 35mph, already he’s forgotten what got him started and he’ll streak right past you. Where’m I going? Why’m I running? Grass — look at all the sweet grass. Yum.
You slowly un-shrivel your eyelids, carefully sneak a peek over your shoulder, and there he is 100 yards away, nose to the ground and flicking the flies out of his ears.
If by some chance rhinoceros were forced to suddenly switch over to making their livings as hunters, it’s not unreasonable to predict that they wouldn’t fare very well. Nor would you ever want to hire a rhinoceros as your pathfinder through the wilderness or ship’s navigator. Whether on land or at sea, the first rules of navigation are that you can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you are, and you can’t know that unless you know where you’ve come from. That’s why ship’s navigators chart their course and explorers keep logs. True, if you’re equipped with a sextant, have mastered its use, and the night sky is clear, you can always pinpoint your “exact” location even out in featureless ocean and so plot the way ahead. The same as, if you’re on land, equipped with a compass, are proficient in its uses and possessed with basic topographical skills, you’ll always know where you are: you’re at the edge of your map. You can’t get lost because, if worse comes to worst and you’re forced to abandon your mission, you can always go back the way you came. Yet if you’re handicapped by having the attention span of rhinoceros, it’s awfully difficult to learn anything new.
Ever wonder what “consumer confidence” means? When did consumer confidence become a Leading Economic Indicator, and pushing it higher on the Wall Street chart become a patriotic duty? Do you remember when you yourself first became a confident consumer? Was it back when you were a child and you had some loose pocket change that quickly disappeared inside a candy store to never be seen again? Or was it when the TV convinced you that the world is made of grass and that your wisest “life choice” is to eat it? Or was it when you realized that the angels of your better nature whispering warnings and encouragement in your ears were really flies out to distract you; that, in a just and peaceful world, there’d be no more two-legged trespassers to contend with and you’d get to snuff out the flies forever?
As you may have guessed, I watched most of the recent Republican Presidential debates. Since, if I wanted to catch a real debate, I’d check the listings at the local high schools, my interest in that media extravaganza was mostly from the standpoint of an amateur cultural anthropologist: what can these people be thinking? For instance, did none of the candidates even once let the words “President George W. Bush” pass their lips because they were confident that their nationwide TV audience has all of the powers of recall of rhinoceros? Or, even more perverse, was it because they knew that most of their audience had aching vicarious hearts that would feel honored to share in their charade? If, in your fevered imagination, Evil has a death grip on you, isn’t all of your own evil magically transformed into righteous self-defense? Obviously so according to these guys.
Beginning in 2000 with his anointment as our Global Commander-in-Chief by a venal and corrupt Supreme Court — if corporations are people, must we the people start thinking like corporations? — count on your fingers the national catastrophes brought about during the reign of the Bush cabal and witness how the sitting president is being blamed for each and every one. This even though, no matter what his considerable shortcomings, he’s innocent of all charges. Now, is that patriotism or something else? Couple the fact that, under the outrageously misnamed Patriot Act, the American Bill of Rights was taken out and burned on the stairs of the Jefferson Memorial with the fact that, in spite of his campaign promises, the current President has reserved such tyrannical powers for himself, his underlings and heirs, and tell me how what we’re now living under is anything other than European Fascism with a nostalgic Southern twang. Or is it possible that, under the reigning paradigm, if something looks, waddles and quacks like a duck then it must be an opossum?
Did you know that, according to exit polls, only about 12% of Republican voters in Mississippi and Alabama feel confident that the President of the United States is a Christian? Or that most doubt he’s even an American? Since during the debates examples of such dangerous paranoia were as abundant as the oil cartel commercials delivered as religious sermons straight from lips of the God of Progress, Prosperity and “Energy Security,” it all boils down to asking yourself: is this stuff inbred or is it being mass produced?
Watching “the debates” with its shifting cast of demented panderers and demagogues gratingly reciting the same permanent cultural warfare at home/permanent global warfare abroad corporate Party Line was like being inside the mind of George Orwell at his desk channeling Kafka who himself is ripped on acid and lost inside the Forbidden City. You know, so Orwell can find the inspiration to put the finishing touches on his long awaited sequel to his classic novel 1984 — 2013.
When the cultural traditions we’re indoctrinated into upholding can no longer satisfy our wish to experience peace and justice, or even satisfy the most basic human needs of tens of millions of us, those traditions become the chains we’re expected to spend our lives polishing. If what we consider to be traditions are no more than fads, and what we think of as “the American Dream” is a cheap imported facsimile; the shoddy product of an unending and all-encompassing advertising campaign for a crass and crazy way of life that has no future, where does that leave us? Are we still obliged to follow? No doubt we’re expected to. Or maybe, like our soldiers getting chopped up in our netherworld wars, we’re just being forced to volunteer.
Once, after we’d returned from Vietnam, three buddies and I got a three-day pass and we used it to drive up to Washington, DC. The Japanese cherry trees lining the Potomac River were blossoming and we happened upon the Jefferson Memorial. We looked up and saw these words carved into the base of its white granite dome: “I have sworn on the altar of God undying hostility to all forms of tyranny over the minds of men.”
Realizing exactly what Jefferson was saying nearly brought us to our knees in awe and shame. I don’t believe any of us ever forgot it.