Poem For Personnel Managers

Photo by Lance Iversen for the San Francisco Chronicle: Panhandler Roy Gray, age 70, recalls the good old days in and around Howard Street at 3rd that also carried the nickname of Skid row. Today the area mostly consists of the Moscone Center, and upscale hotels and restaurants. Thursday May 7, 2009.

An old man asked me for a cigarette
and I carefully dealt out two.
“Been lookin’ for job. Gonna stand
in the sun and smoke.”

He was close to rags and rage
and he leaned against death.
It was a cold day, indeed, and trucks
loaded and heavy as old whores
banged and tangled on the streets…

We drop like planks from a rotting floor
as the world strives to unlock the bone
that weights its brain.
(God is a lonely place without steak.)

We are dying birds
we are sinking ships –
the world rocks down against us
and we
throw out our arms
and we
throw out our legs
like the death kiss of the centipede:
but they kindly snap our backs
and call our poison “politics.”

Well, we smoked, he and I – little men
nibbling fish-head thoughts…

All the horses do not come in,
and as you watch the lights of the jails
and hospitals wink on and out,
and men handle flags as carefully as babies,
remember this:

you are a great-gutted instrument of
heart and belly, carefully planned –
so if you take a plane for Savannah,
take the best plane;
or if you eat chicken on a rock,
make it a very special animal.
(You call it a bird; I call birds
flowers.)

And if you decide to kill somebody,
make it anybody and not somebody;
some men are made of more special, precious
parts: do not kill
if you will
a president or a King
or a man
behind a desk –
these have heavenly longitudes
enlightened attitudes.

If you decide,
take us
who stand and smoke and glower;
we are rusty with sadness and
feverish
with climbing broken ladders.

Take us:
we were never children
like your children.
We do not understand love songs
like your inamorata.

Our faces are cracked linoleum,
cracked through with the heavy, sure
feet of our masters.

We are shot through with carrot tops
and poppyseed and tilted grammar;
and waste days like mad blackbirds
and pray for alcoholic nights.
Our silk-sick human smiles wrap around
us like somebody else’s confetti:
we do not even belong to the Party.
We are a scene chalked-out with the
sick white brush of age.

We smoke, asleep as a dish of figs.
We smoke, as dead as fog.

Take us.

A bathtub murder
or something quick and bright; our names
in the papers.

Known, at last, for a moment
to millions of careless and grape-dull eyes
that hold themselves private
to only flicker and flame
at the poor cracker-barrel jibes
of their conceited, pampered
correct comedians.

Known, at last, for a moment,
as they will be known
and as you will be known
by an all-gray man on an all-gray horse
who sits and fondles a sword
longer than the night
longer than the mountain’s aching backbone
longer than all the cries
that have a-bombed up out of throats
and exploded in a newer, less-planned
land.

We smoke and the clouds do not notice us.
A cat walks by and shakes Shakespeare off of his back.
Tallow, tallow, candle like wax: our spines
are limp and our consciousness burns
guilelessly away
the remaining wick life has
doled out to us.

An old man asked me for a cigarette
and told me his troubles
and this
is what he said:
that Age was a crime
and that Pity picked up the marbles
and that Hatred picked up the
cash.

He might have been your father
or mine.

He might have been a sex-fiend
or a saint.

But whatever he was,
he was condemned
and we stood in the sun and
smoked
and looked around
in our leisure
to see who was next in
line.

Charles Bukowski
The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills (1969)

Photo by Lance Iversen for the San Francisco Chronicle: Panhandler Roy Gray, age 70, recalls the good old days in and around Howard Street at 3rd that also carried the nickname of Skid Row. Today the area mostly consists of the Moscone Center, and upscale hotels and restaurants. Thursday May 7, 2009.

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On Gun Control

Ad for toy machine gun, Little Folks Magazine, December 1918

Nobody really believes [the right to bear arms is] about maintaining a militia. It’s about having possession of a tool that makes a person feel powerful nearly to the point of exaltation. …I am not saying that people who love guns inordinately are unstable; I am saying that a gun is the most powerful device there is to accessorize the ego.

Alec Wilkinson
The Dark Presence of Guns
The New Yorker, 24 December 2012

Illustration from Little Folks Magazine, December 1918

Related: The Cultural Fight for Guns
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This Is It

Gore Vidal, 1992

Because there is no cosmic point to the life that each of us perceives on this distant bit of dust at galaxy’s edge, all the more reason for us to maintain in proper balance what we have here. Because there is nothing else. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all.

Gore Vidal
Armageddon? (1987)
Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia

Atoms and Void and Nothing Else

Road

The Roman historian Titus Livy likened history to a collection of “fine things to take as models” and “base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.” The contemporary American novelist John Crowley carries the thought another two thousand years along the road to who knows where, suggesting that “the past is the new future…its lessons not simple or singular, a big landscape of human possibility, generative, inexhaustible.”

Fortunately so. We have little else with which to build the future except the driftwood of the past, salvaging from the journey across the frontiers of the millennia what mankind has found to be useful or beautiful or true, on scraps of papyrus and bronze coins, in confessions voluntary and coerced, in five-act plays and three-part songs.

America’s Founding Fathers exploited the resource of history as diligently as their descendants exploited the lands and forests of the Ohio River Valley and the trans-Mississippi frontier. They framed their several envisionings of a republic (Hamilton’s and Franklin’s as well as those of Jefferson and Adams) on blueprints found in their readings of Livy, Cicero, Plutarch, and Seneca.

So in its turn the Italian Renaissance derived from the rediscovery of classical antiquity. The latter progression supplies the scholar Stephen Greenblatt with the premise for last year’s best-selling The Swerve, which accounts for the death and resurrection of On the Nature of Things, 7,400 lines of lyric but unrhymed verse composed by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus in the first century B.C. Greenblatt subtitles his book How the World Became Modern, attributing the metamorphosis in large part to the recovery of Lucretius’ poem in a German monastery in 1417 by Possio Bracciolini, Italian humanist, Vatican functionary, and apostolic scribe.

Lucretius had infused his poem with the thought of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher teaching his students in Athens in the fourth century B.C. that the purpose of life was the embrace of beauty and pleasure – that the elementary particles of matter (“the seeds of things”) are eternal. Everything that exists – the sun and the moon, waterflies, ziggurats, Mother and the flag – is made of atoms in motion, constantly colliding and combining with one another in an inexhaustible variety of form and substance. The universe consists of “atoms and void and nothing else.” No afterlife, no divine retribution or reward, nothing other than a vast turmoil of creation and destruction, the ceaseless making and remaking of despots and matinee idols.

To the modern mind atomic theory is old news, as it was to the schools of Stoic and Epicurean thought during the reign of Augustus Caesar. Christianity dispatched it to Hell, reconfiguring the pursuit of pleasure as sin, the meaning of life as pain. By recovering De rerum natura to the land of the living, pooling its resources with those dormant in the works of Ovid, Seneca, and Plato, the Renaissance redrafted the contract between man and nature, its embrace of truth as beauty and beauty as truth made manifest in the glory of its painting, sculpture, music, architecture, and literature. Over the course of the next six centuries Lucretius’ poem finds further development and expression in Machiavelli’s political theory, Montaigne’s essays, Shakespeare’s plays, Newton’s mathematics, and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

The circumstances at hand in the early years of the twenty-first century suggest that time is ripe for another redrafting of the contract between man and nature, with any luck of a magnitude comparable to the one that gave birth to the Renaissance. For the past fifty years it has been apparent to the lookouts on the watchtowers of Western civilization that the finite resources of the planet cannot accommodate either the promise or the theory of infinite growth – a.k.a. the American Dream. The simple arithmetic (too many people coming into the world, not enough water, oil, food, phosphorus) underwrites the vast landscape of trouble listed under the headings of worldwide environmental degradation and financial collapse. I read the relevant policy papers – on health, education, debt, poverty, homeland security, climate change, the extinction of species, the wars of all against all – and I notice that they tend toward a common awareness (dimly grasped but distinctly felt) that a global consumer society, if left to its own devices, must devour the earth. Not with malice aforethought, or as a matter of ideology, but because that is its métier – the scorpion that kills the frog on whose back it is crossing the river because it knows not what else to do.

The intimations of mortality lurking in the depths of the policy papers lead in turn to the recognition of the capitalist economy as an historical construct, and therefore, like a college reunion and the Colossus of Rhodes, a collision of atoms en route to recombination or the void. A story with a beginning (in sixteenth-century Holland), a middle (the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrial revolutions in England and America), and an end (foreshadowed by the financial convulsions of the past twenty years at all points on the free-market compass). Sensing the approach of maybe something terrible slouching toward Wall Street to be born, the lookouts look for salvation in technologies as yet undreamed of by man or machine. My guess is that they’re looking in the wrong direction. To acknowledge the truth of the old Arab proverb that says we have less reason to fear what might happen tomorrow than to beware what happened yesterday is also to say that we have more reason to look to the past – history as the phoenix in the attic – for the hope of the future.

Lewis Lapham
Ignorance of Things Past
Harper’s Magazine, May 2012

The Myth of the American Century

Illustration by R. Crumb: "I'm an American!": Whiteman, from Zap Comix No. 1 (1967)

As contemplated by average Americans, sitting in their living rooms and leafing through their favorite magazine, the outside world in mid-February 1941 seemed nothing if not troubled. Occupying the center of attention was Great Britain, its people stoic in the face of a widely expected invasion. Although the intensity of German air raids had diminished in recent weeks (a pause that some called the “Lullablitz”), Londoners were still spending their nights in underground shelters. British newspapers buzzed with stories “of gas clouds to be blown across the Channel, of paralyzing gas, of inaudible sound waves that make people sick, of 40,000 troop gliders, of air-troop landings in 500 places at once.” Although small numbers of demonstrators, “alleged to be Communists,” were complaining that food-rationing arrangements favored the well-to-do, the British upper lip remained admirably stiff.

These reports appeared – along with much else – in the February 17, 1941, issue of Life magazine. Life was the latest franchise of Time Inc., the journalistic juggernaut that had propelled the young Henry R. Luce to a position of wealth and power. Raised in China by missionary parents, Luce retained throughout his life a missionary inclination, determined to have a hand in great deeds. This found expression in various enthusiasms, yet, by early 1941, one cause took precedence: supporting Great Britain in its lonely struggle against Nazi Germany. With President Roosevelt proceeding by half steps, Luce sought to force the issue. The result, a lengthy editorial in that same issue of Life, carried the evocative title “The American Century.”

Luce began his essay by assuming the role of national shrink. “We Americans are unhappy,” he wrote. “We are nervous – or gloomy – or apathetic.” For Luce, the contrast between Americans and Britons was striking. Fighting for their very existence, the people of Great Britain “are profoundly calm. There seems to be a complete absence of nervousness.” With the onset of war, “all the neuroses of modern life had vanished from England.” Why were Americans feeling so out of sorts? The role that the United States had come to play in the ongoing European war – involved yet less than fully committed – offered a clue. The times called for action, but Americans persisted in dithering. The “cure” was self-evident. In an immediate sense, duty required the United States to ally itself with Great Britain as a full-fledged belligerent in the European war. Yet this amounted to hardly more than a first step. Duty implied a mission of transforming the entire global order, with the United States assuming unequivocally and permanently the mantle of global leadership. In the course of performing that duty, Luce fully expected the United States to transform – and perfect – itself.

“The American Century” was sandwiched between a feature on women’s fashion (“Shoe Fair Features Casual Styles Inspired by U.S. Navy and Cowboys”) and a profile of Betty Carstairs, oil heiress, adventuress, and speedboat racer. The vision of American global leadership that Luce advanced in his essay and the vision of personal gratification that his magazine extolled had this much in common: each represented an aspiration, not to be confused with an actually existing reality. The tension between these two visions of an American Century first became evident with the Korean War. A decade later, the Vietnam War brought that tension fully into the open, revealing the limits of both Washington’s capacity to police the American Century and the American people’s willingness to underwrite that effort. More or less simultaneously, the foundations of U.S. economic primacy began to erode. The terms of trade tipped from black to red and stayed there. The oil needed to sustain the mobile lifestyle that Americans prized came increasingly from abroad. So, too, did the manufactures – including automobiles – that Americans coveted, acquired, used, and discarded with abandon.

The decline and eventual collapse of the Soviet empire – interpreted in Washington as the vindication and renewal of the American Century – disguised the significance of these developments. As the Cold War wound down, politicians and pundits vied with one another to replicate Luce’s feat, attempting to capture in a single phrase what “victory” over Communism signified. In a nod to Luce, the most ardent proponents of deploying U.S. power “for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit” called their enterprise simply the Project for the New American Century. While PNAC agitated for the more aggressive use of U.S. military muscle, the advocates of globalization unleashed rhetorical flourishes that would have made Luce himself blush. Few observers paid much attention to the fact that when the United States now employed armed force, it rarely achieved decisive results, or that globalization, while making some people very rich indeed, left many ordinary Americans hurting.

After 9/11, President George W. Bush launched an all-out effort to realize the American Century throughout the Islamic world, without mobilizing his country or even adjusting its domestic priorities. Rather than collective sacrifice, the wartime role assigned to the American public was uninhibited consumption, encouraged by reduced taxes. The costs, fiscal as well as human, absorbed by the American people turned out to be vastly greater than anticipated. Instead of transforming the Middle East, simply extricating the United States from Iraq soon became the priority. Then, in the midst of war, the economy went into a tailspin, producing a crisis not seen since the Great Depression. PNAC quietly closed up shop, but politicians and ideologues continued to identify themselves with Luce’s dream.

As a presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama called upon his supporters “to unite in common purpose, to make this century the next American century.” This was akin to promising that world peace or a cure for cancer lies just around the corner: a pleasant thought with little basis in reality. Were there any doubts in that regard, the disappointments associated with Obama’s presidency soon quashed them. By the seventieth anniversary of Luce’s famous essay, the gap between what he had summoned Americans to do back in 1941 and what they were actually willing or able to do had become unbridgeable. Contemplating the implications of President Obama’s decision to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan during the summer of 2011, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen observed that “the American Century just ended.” Although, like most observers in Washington, Cohen lagged considerably behind events, his verdict is likely to stand. To the extent that an American Century ever did exist – a point on which historians are not in unanimous agreement –  that era has now definitively passed.

Was the “American Century” ever more than a figment of a publisher’s fevered imagination? Incorporating the events of the era into Luce’s narrative poses a challenge. Exertions undertaken to benefit ourselves and all humanity have so often produced unforeseen, unintended, and even perverse consequences. Defenders of the American Century insist that repeated failures to export democracy (with sundry other errors and disappointments along the way) reveal nothing essential about the United States or its ability to direct the course of events. To rebut the claim that trying to remake the world in America’s image is a fool’s errand, they cite the results of World War II and the outcome of the Cold War. Framed as chapters in a longer narrative of liberation, these two events invest the ambitions inherent in the vision of an American Century with a modicum of plausibility. Yet sustaining that narrative requires the careful selection and arrangement of facts, with inconvenient or uncomfortable truths excluded, suppressed, or simply ignored.

With regard to World War II, the many facts that don’t fit include the following: in the destruction of Nazi Germany, U.S. forces played at best a supporting role, with Stalin’s Red Army – the vanguard of a totalitarian police state – doing most of the fighting, killing, and dying; as a result, the price of liberating Western Europe included delivering Eastern Europe to Stalin and his henchmen. Meanwhile, in its aerial bombing campaign against German and Japanese cities, the United States engaged in the conscious, intentional, wholesale slaughter of noncombatants. In the aftermath of the European war, the Allies collaborated in enforcing a massive involuntary transfer of populations – that is, a policy of ethnic cleansing. When they found it expedient to do so, U.S. officials allowed Nazi war criminals – rocket scientists and intelligence officials, for example – to escape prosecution and to enter the service of the United States. Then there is this: at no time prior to or during the war did the United States make any substantive effort to prevent or even disrupt the Nazi persecution of Jews that culminated in the “final solution.” In Washington the fate of European Jewry never figured as more than an afterthought. As much or more than the promotion of American ideals – that “sharing with all peoples of our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence, [and] our Constitution” that Luce dearly hoped to see – these decisions, along with the priorities they reflect, laid the basis for the interval of American primacy that followed.

The “Disneyfication” of World War II, to use Paul Fussell’s term, finds its counterpart in the Disneyfication of the Cold War, reduced in popular imagination and the halls of Congress to Ronald Reagan’s demanding “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The Soviet leader meekly complied, and freedom erupted across Europe. Facts that complicate this story – assassination plots, dirty tricks gone awry, cozy relations with corrupt dictators – provide endless fodder for scholarly articles and books but ultimately get filed under the heading of Things That Don’t Really Matter. The Ike Americans like even today is the one who kept the Soviets at bay while presiding over eight years of peace and prosperity. The other Ike –  the one who unleashed the CIA on Iran and Guatemala, refused to let the Vietnamese exercise their right to self-determination in 1956, and ignored the plight of Hungarians who, taking seriously Washington’s rhetoric of liberation, rose up to throw off the yoke of Soviet power – remains far less well known. Similarly, Americans today continue to cherish John F. Kennedy’s charisma, wit, and eloquence. When it comes to the Bay of Pigs, Operation Mongoose, and the murder of Ngo Dinh Diem, they generously give the martyred president a pass.

The way that Americans choose to remember World War II and the Cold War – evil overthrown thanks chiefly to the United States – invests the American Century with reassuring moral clarity. Fixing December 7, 1941, as the start date of the struggle for Pacific dominion, for example, saddles the Japanese aggressor with responsibility for all that followed. The high-handedness of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry in coercing Japan to open itself to the outside world, nearly a century earlier; systematic American discrimination against Japanese immigrants, codified in insulting state and local laws; Washington’s refusal to acknowledge a Japanese sphere of influence in East Asia, while asserting American primacy throughout the Western Hemisphere; and, more immediately, the impact of U.S.-imposed sanctions intended to strangle Japan economically: for most Americans, Pearl Harbor renders all these irrelevant.

Self-serving mendacities – that the attacks of September 11, 2001, reprising those of December 7, 1941, “came out of nowhere” to strike an innocent nation – don’t enhance the safety and wellbeing of the American people. To further indulge old illusions of the United States presiding over and directing the course of history will not only impede the ability of Americans to understand the world and themselves but may well pose a positive danger to both. No one opens an old issue of Life today in the expectation of unearthing truths with contemporary relevance. They do so to satisfy their taste for nostalgia, resurrecting memories, real or imagined, of an America that was good and getting better, a land and people overflowing with promise. Something of the same can be said of Luce’s other great creation: his vision of an American Century likewise survives as an artifact, encapsulating an era about which some (although by no means all) Americans might wax nostalgic – a time, real or imagined, of common purpose, common values, and shared sacrifice. Only by jettisoning the American Century and the illusions to which it gives rise will the self-knowledge and self-understanding that Americans urgently require become a possibility. Whether Americans will grasp the opportunity that beckons is another matter.

Andrew J. Bacevich
The Short American Century: A Postmortem (2012)

Illustration by R. CrumbWhiteman, from Zap Comix No. 1 (1967)