21 December 2004

It's the End of the World as We Know It, Part II

Previously on The Token Reader:
The daily grind continues the same as before; wouldn't life have changed drastically if American democracy really died, or even was on its deathbed?
One expects that to be true, but is this expectation rational or merely wishful thinking, perhaps even a kind of exceptionalism ("it can't happen here"). This brings me to the second article I mentioned in my first post, Dining With the Rhinos, by Joe Bageant (found via The Leiter Reports - sould have been found via the King of Zembla).

The title of Bageant's essay refers to Rhinoceros, a play by Eugene Ionesco about the transformation of society from free to totalitarian - the transformation of society from a collection of individuals to an unthinking herd of rhinos. Even without elaborating further, the imagery is disturbingly familiar, though, like a rhinoceros in the living room, none dare speak of it. But, for a moment, let's return to the initial question:
After all, nothing appears much different since the November elections. We get up in the morning and everything is the same as when we went to bed. We still have our jobs and the mortgage still comes due on the first of the month. Television is as bad as ever. Yet, something has changed. One keeps one's opinions more to one's self these days. There is something in the air they cannot quite put their finger on, and if one cannot name the beast, well then, it's best not to comment on it lest people think you are starting to fray at the edges, becoming aberrant. And besides, in looking around, nobody else seems overly upset except a few aberrant types on the Internet.
In that short passage, Bageant captures exactly the "something in the air," the sense that dissent is no longer safe, as though you have to either stampede with the herd or get trampled underfoot. Now, I don't know about you other "aberrant types on the Internet," but while I speak almost as freely as the Rude Pundit (without the hilarious rudeness, alas) here, I'm usually quite a bit more careful in the meat world. What do I mean by "careful"? I mean that I've learned to wear my FAUX News and GYWO t-shirts only in agreeable company and to keep them hidden in most public places unless I want someone walking up to me and trying to start a fight (yes, physically) again. (There was even that time someone in an SUV - of course - tried to run me off the road after seeing my rather tame bumper stickers - and yes, I know that's why based on how it happened.) I mean that I can't say anything remotely approaching this in most settings for fear of being labeled an anti-American communist, an acceptable target for violence. (Think I'm paranoid? That's what I called my mother when she complained that putting those bumper stickers on my car was an invitation to be attacked.) But there are always crazies and bullies in any society, so why does this matter? This couldn't be real fascism, could it?
Hard cases such as myself, and the readers of websites like this one, have railed and ranted about the rise of the rhinos for some time now. But to be honest, I sometimes doubt myself, just like those middle-of-the-road liberals. Like theirs, my senses do not perceive much physical change. I get up and brush my teeth and every day is the same as the day before. I look over at my sleeping wife, who is untroubled by any of the impending political specters that so often haunt me. And I wonder, am I nuts? Have I finally fallen off the precipice over which I have so long stared? After all, the dog still chews the corner of the carpet if I don't keep an eye on him. Are not these the things of ordinary earthly life? Maybe I should be paying more attention to the mundane stuff, which any reflective person knows constitutes most of living.

Then that national creepiness, the distant rumble of the herd, rattles me again.
At a time when our government is telling us to 'watch what we say' and the (now-retired) Attorney General equates dissent with high treason (make no mistake, Ashcroft deliberately used the wording from the Constitutional definition of treason), such intimidation is, together, bigger than its sum, and the bully bigger than the wannabe dictators next door. In fact, the individuals no longer matter, for:
the stampede itself is what it is all about. It is the stampede, the mindless charging off together that causes the metamorphosis of people into rhinos.
Somewhere, some hate radio goon is directing the herd, himself part of the mindless stampede, a cog in the machinery of fascism.
"But," you object (must... resist... copying... Fafnir), "it can't happen here. We're a nation with a long, proud tradition of individualism; some herd of rhinos might form, but they would never be able to assimilate most of the population!" Sadly, Ionesco dealt with the same exceptionalist argument when the play was first performed:
Americans at the time, 1959, saw Rhinoceros as a play about their favorite theme, individualism. Ionesco tried to tell critics that it was a play "not merely against conformism but mainly about totalitarianism," and that the very notion of a government or state proclaiming individualism as one of its national virtues is in itself absurd. To which U.S. critics replied that totalitarianism cannot happen here because America is a nation of individualists, thus proving Ionesco's point.
Another time, I might have been comforted by the assumption that protest and civil disobedience could stem the tide. Bageant, however, gives just enough hope to that pipe dream before dashing it on the rocks:
Dissent? We wish! Judging from the run-of-the-mill American liberals I see here in the Washington, DC area, liberals think voting Democratic, giving fifty bucks to the ACLU and dropping down at the National Mall once a year to observe someone else's protest is enough to maintain their credentials.

Nevertheless, some very ordinary middle class liberals are finally feeling like Berenger. Starting to feel that creepy sense of alienation (the kind that we American lefties have become used to), catching a whiff of what smells like approaching totalitarianism. This has been very hard for white-collar liberals who pride themselves on balanced judgment and restraint from political excess. But ever since the suspect skin-of-the-teeth election of George Bush, I have been able to coax honest confessions of fear out of at least a few mainstream Democrats around the company water cooler. These are the Toyota and Volvo driving liberals whose most adventurous move in any given week may be parking one space over from their usual spot in the company parking lot. (That this daring move always draws comment should give you some idea of the quiet desperation of publishing work in this country.) A few of these meek liberals are starting to smell the fear, catch the scent of the herd.
Sounds hopeful, right? Alas:
Calling weird, weird is very hard for educated liberals. Most have nice lives, either in the middle class or perhaps living comfortably amid less affluent but intelligent and artistic circles. Others are middle class educators and such, raising families among decent open-minded friends in a community of like souls. Of course some do smell the fear. But they think that if they remain invisible and deny any such thoughts they will escape the trampling of the herd.

Then, too, acknowledging that we have devolved into a one-party rhinoid system, the party of business, but with two wings, Dem and GOP, would put the average American liberal in the position of having to take action. Or not. And let's face the truth about modern middle class American liberals—they are a rather gutless lot who would not take to the streets no matter how bad things get. That is all but impossible when your house is on a good street and your kids' college fund is in place, even if it took a second mortgage to pay for it. Denial is easier, as was proved when the so-called American left failed to rise up when the 2000 elections were rigged, something which doesn't even fly in the Ukraine these days, as was proved by its massive protest of similar elections there. Yet I must admit, to stand up in the face of a rhino herd takes a lot of ass. Maybe denial buys enough time to get the kids through school and the mortgage paid off before the rhinos tear up the lawn. Denial can sometimes work, but only if you are buying time for yourself.
That last sentence especially gave me pause because that kind of denial is the same logic as the denial that we have to do something about global warming, waning oil supplies, or economic self-destruction. This common 'logic of denial' shared by rhinos and nominal liberals, I believe, makes them quite vulnerable to the stampede mentality, perhaps, when push comes to shove, more apt to join in than stand against it. Fortunately, Bageant identifies the root impulse driving the American rhino, which he very aptly terms "Southern meanness," (or "conservative meanness") a phenomenon most liberals fail to recognize let alone express.
Okay. Just how mean are we talking about? Blind stupid mean. Meaner than a goddamn sack of snakes. Here is a sample of standard rhino conversation, which I have clipped from the local online forum so as to be completely accurate in quoting them. But these quotes are from the very same people who say the very same things night after night at King Harry's and actually believe what they say. I remind you that these are some of the better sort of rhinos in this town, rhinos who own businesses, professional rhinos, etc. You do not want to meet the real wooly boogers.

* Who cares what the rest of the world thinks of us? They do not live here and they do not count!

* The United States will be forced to engage in tactical low yield nuclear attacks, in particular against Iran & North Korea.

* I support the complete destruction of Arab/Muslim culture and nationality. The complete destruction of their capitol cities and money centers. Then we will see how long they taunt us.

* Put an end to all this stupid political correctness crap and then simply beat some sense into those who don't comply. The hell with what the euro tribal councils whine.

And my personal favorite rhinism of all:

* If Americans stand together and quit questioning themselves so much, we can rule the world. But all this liberal whining is ruining American business here and abroad.
And we're fed this rhinisms day in and day out by our pathetic excuse for a free press. So where does that leave us? Are we hopeless, doomed to become like Berenger, a hideous abomination of humanity among a stampeding herd of rhinos? Or is there something we can do about this creeping fascism? Before saying that I'm blowing things out of proportion, perhaps you should read Bageant's closing words:
If as is claimed, American politics are a pendulum, then that swing has been a mighty damned short one of late, somewhere between corporate feudalism abroad, and a domestic form in which rhinos happily play video games and watch football while their kids charge around on the ever expanding rhino empire's wars for oil and turf and more slave labor.

Call me hyperbolic if you want, paranoid even. But millions of people with swollen bellies around the planet are nodding yes, along with all those unemployed youths in Fallujah, and Mindanao, and Bolivia, loading AK clips, in anticipation of bagging an American rhino.
[NOTE: This was originally supposed to end somewhere around here - and to be a single post, to boot - but that kinda didn't work out. I don't want to leave y'all thinking I'm a total pessimist, so I'm mulling over some ideas on what to do about this... situation... and will probably have a Part III as a Christmas present to everyone.]

[UPDATE(21:05): added the rhino pic. Thanks, Scaramouche!]

[UPDATE(12/23): Added the link to the King of Zembla. Sorry for missing your post, Most Benevolent Despot.]


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