An Idiot Wind

Given my choice of movies, the execrable Michael Jackson puff piece/pseudo-documentary This Is It would have remained near the bottom of my list, but on a long airplane journey over a cloud-obscured ocean, having read all my back issues of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, there wasn’t anything else to distract me from getting out the computer and actually doing some work.

So I had a look.  No more than 10 or 20 minutes, I promised myself, but wound up watching until the credits rolled.  Not because it was better than I’d expected, nor even because it was worse.  It was worse, but not in the compulsively fascinating train wreck sense.  No, this fell into Hannah Arendt banality-of evil territory, following a couple dozen basically decent Americans into shameless liars and sycophants merely by the mere proximity of the shuffling zombie still desperately marketing himself as “The King Of Pop.”

Having made my own living in the field of pop music, I’m no one to sneer at grandiose and misconceived claims.  I’ve said overly extravagant things about my own favorite entertainers, and not just those I was trying to sell to the public.  But the nature of “pop” is so insubstantial – when done right, there’s nothing beneath the surface but more surface – that proclaiming oneself king of it is both ludicrous and pathetic.  I mean, do you remember the cool kids at school having to tell you they were cool?

“It’s like the church of rock and roll,” declared the director, a potbellied schlump who looked like his last substantive contact with rock and roll had been around 1975, if ever.  Trying to drive that point home, he finished the film with an ersatz prayer circle: dancers, musicians, singers, stagehands, and costume designers holding hands and bowing their heads in reverence to the Genius™ that was Michael Jackson.

“Was” being the operative word.  The poor creature, who we now know was narcotized to the eyeballs throughout the entire grim affair, wandered in and out of focus, always a half step behind or ahead of his supporting cast.  I was reminded of seeing Rudolf Nureyev near the close of his career, when one of the 20th century’s greatest dancers could do little more than walk through his role.  When he summoned the strength to do a brief, attenuated version of a classic Nureyev twirl or leap, the crowd – myself included – went wild.  Not for what they were seeing, for it was nothing any competent ballet student couldn’t have managed, but for the memories of greatness, of the glory that had been.

Michael Jackson fans who flocked to see This Is It no doubt felt similarly about their fallen hero.  Unless they were as doped up as he was, they couldn’t have believed they were seeing more than a pale, depressing shadow of what Jackson was capable of before he squandered his health and sanity on a perverse but grimly logical pursuit of the American dream.

To have almost limitless wealth, to be able to possess almost anything imaginable, no matter how pointless or tasteless, to surround yourself with fawning admirers eager to assure you of the unalloyed brilliance of your every word, thought or gesture: what could be more American than that?  Well, winning it in the lottery instead of doing any actual work to obtain it would be, but we can’t fault Michael Jackson in that department.  He worked extremely hard to accomplish what he did, making the sight of him pissing it away all the more painful.

Kind of like America itself these days, eh?  Which is really what’s been on my mind more than the sad but hopefully cautionary tale of Jackson’s descent into the abyss.  I’ve always had a penchant for the apocalyptic: when, as a lad of 9 or 10 I first encountered the story of the fall of Rome, I set out to write a novel, set in the year 3000, that featured archeologists excavating the ruins of America and musing on the reasons for its demise.

Sadly, my ambition was outstripped by inertia, as has often been the case; otherwise I might have a manuscript readymade for what I’m told is a burgeoning market in collapsing empire lit.  Growing up, I took a similar view – a “This Is It” perspective, you might say – of the civil turmoil of the late 60s, the economic upheaval of the 70s, Reaganism and its attendant evils in the 80s.  A few more mind-altering drugs and I would have been the bearded loon parading up Market Street with “The End Is Near” emblazoned on my placard.

As you may have noted, the end never quite arrived, and once I’d gotten over my disappointment (the child in me clung tenaciously, well into adulthood, to the notion that chaos and collapse would be, you know, exciting and fun), I had to adjust to the idea that perhaps I was going to get old after all, and that silly things like health insurance and Social Security and a safe, warm place to live could one day become important to me.

Well, here we are: although I haven’t yet needed health insurance I’m sufficiently afraid of not having it that I fork over 10% of my annual income to a rapacious corporation that uses the profits garnered from captive consumers like myself to sabotage any possibility of meaningful health care reform.  Social Security?  In theory, trillions of dollars are set aside to pay for the retirements of this and future generations; in practice, we spent all that money long ago on tax cuts for the fabulously rich and fantastically ill-conceived and mismanaged wars.  A safe, warm place to live?  So far, I’m all right, but plenty of people aren’t, and with cities and states stripped of their resources and national bankruptcy looming – hell, if we didn’t have such a powerful army, the world would have stopped accepting our checks years ago – I don’t want to count on things staying that way.

It’s ironic, I suppose, that just when I’d finally put aside my lifelong fascination with the apocalypse – indeed, when I’d started advising young people that it always looks like the end when you’ve got your whole future in front of you – I find myself feeling pessimistic about the future in a way I never have before.  It’s not so much the threat of nuclear-armed terrorists, though that’s hardly comforting, nor an economy founded upon smoke and mirrors, nor even the various forms of environmental catastrophe staring us in the face.

No, what really terrifies me is the rising tide of idiocy that seems to have been let loose upon the land.  Oh, I know, crassness, sensationalism, bombast and self-importance have always been an intrinsic and sometimes even charming part of the American character.  The same goes for wacky political parties and screwy religious cults: a level-headed, sober and circumspect society we’ve never been, and I suspect most Americans prefer it that way.  Besides, that streak of bull-headed madness has developed in close parallel with the idealism and innovation that has helped us weather and even profit from past crises and challenges.

But when I refer to the idiocy presently stalking the land, I’m not talking about the garden-variety stupidity and tastelessness, that floods into our homes via hundreds of cable channels or has the director of the aforementioned Michael Jackson excrescence declaring, “This is the most extraordinary event of my creative life.”  No, I’m thinking of idiocy in the sense it was first used by the Greeks, to whom an idiot was a person possessed by the fantasy that he lived in a world of his own, free of connection or obligation to society.

The lunatic right – I hesitate to use the term “right,” because it implies a connection to classical conservatism, which, think what you may of it, was at least a respectable ideology founded on rational premises – makes an easy target here, but while egregious, it’s hardly the only offender.  Demagogues of the Glenn Beck/Sarah Palin ilk find it easy to inflame the poorly educated but sometimes justifiably aggrieved ranks of teabaggers, but the left has not covered itself with glory, either.  Even Barack Obama, that embodiment of cool, calm intellect and reason, shows distressing signs of becoming what no one would have imagined: an affirmative action president.

Oh, he’s adequate to the job, all right.  More than adequate.  But despite his undeniable brilliance, he seems content to coast through with a B average.  A high B perhaps, and during ordinary times, it would be enough to mark him out as a decent, even a very good president.  But the times we are muddling through demand an A+ president, an FDR or a Lincoln.  Not only does Obama appear unable or unwilling to step his game up to that level; a perusal of the political landscape doesn’t reveal anybody who could.

Finding a way out of our present impasse will require something like the unified sense of purpose with which we responded to the Great Depression or the Second World War.  In its place we get a crescendo of, “Why should I have to pay taxes?” coupled with, “But don’t you dare cut my benefits.”

Much merriment has been made at the expense of protesters who demand that the government stay out of their Medicare or who view the attempt to provide them with affordable health insurance as a Stalinist plot, but once again, ignorance exists across the board.  The right is up in arms – literally, in some cases – against Obama for attempting to impose “socialism” on the USA; the left is ready to jettison him because he hasn’t issued executive orders ending unemployment, imposing single payer health care, and providing free marijuana for all.

Meanwhile, bridges and roads fall to bits, public transportation and schools are gutted, services that remained part of the civic structure even in the darkest days of the Depression are cut back or canceled because “we can’t afford them” anymore.  We are still, by any measure, the richest country in the history of the world, but we suffer from desperate poverty, and not just in the physical sense.  Our imagination and our vision, our can-do attitude and our must-do sense of responsibility have gone missing, or, perhaps more to the point, been sold for a mess of pottage.

Am I too easily discouraged?  Mistaking a momentary blip on the horizon for a dire and inescapable fate?  I hope that’s the case, that in a few years we’ll be able to smile about those dark days when our future was mortgaged to the Chinese, people seriously believed Sarah Palin was qualified to be president, and a pathetic, drug-addicted manchild like Michael Jackson represented the apotheosis of modern culture.  I’m hoping, but I’m not holding my breath.

7 thoughts on “An Idiot Wind

  • March 7, 2010 at 6:20 am

    “Demagogues of the Glenn Beck/Sarah Palin ilk find it easy to inflame the poorly educated but sometimes justifiably aggrieved ranks of teabaggers, but the left has not covered itself with glory, either.”

    Teabaggers? You do like to go on about how “poorly educated” the “teabaggers” are, and those who like Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin.

    And what is so smart about Larry Livermore?

    Look how you still go on about Barack Obama, as if you literally worship the man: “that embodiment of cool, calm intellect and reason”, “undeniable brilliance”….

    Undeniable brilliance?? What exactly has Barack Obama ever done that is undeniably brilliant? And her eI am on Friday reading in the news (it comes out on a Friday because thhey hope I won’t notice) that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicts Obama’s budget will generate deficits over the upcoming decade that would total $9.8 trillion! I realize you’re into fawning over pop culture celebrities (such as Green Day) and that Barack Obama is a pop celebrity politician with a cult of personality going on (that you’re dumb enough to have bought into), but do you digest $9.8 trillion?

    Yes, please keep on with your commentaries about the poorly educated “teabaggers”. If only they could be as smart as Larry Livermore, who still can’t figure out that Obama is something far less than brilliant. To say the least. He’s a train wreck.

  • March 7, 2010 at 6:30 am

    Oh the “evils” of Ronald Reagan! Winning the Cold War (which liberated hundreds of million of people from commies — you know those people still held in high esteem by your pals, such as Jello Biafra (who’s a big adoring fan of Hugo Chavez)) and who set the stage for the economic boom in the USA in the 1990s under which you yourself made a nice living. What an evil guy. Reagan certainly can’t match the brilliance of Barack Obama, even though I can’t exactly find one brilliant thing Obama has ever done. I guess you find adding $9.8 trillion to the deficits a brilliant move that will be great for our children.

  • March 9, 2010 at 1:11 am

    Thanks Frantic… Reagan was awesome, Larry’s an asshole. Got it.

  • March 9, 2010 at 4:37 am

    Dayun, I didn’t call anyone an “asshole”. It was Larry Livermore using obscene sexual terms for the Tea Party movement, and stating how uneducated they are. This, while continuing to cling to the laughable hype that Barack Obama is some sort of brilliant politician. No one will actually state anything brilliant that Obama has ever done, because it doesn’t exist. It’s called media hype. And you have to have been a real rube to have bought into that hype. Yes, I’m calling Larry Livermore a rube.

    As for Reagan, I was simply trying to state that phrases such as “the evils of Ronald Reagan” roll off the tongues of people of Livermore’s ilk the same way phrases like “the undeniable brilliance of Barack Obama” do. These statements have little basis in reality. For any evils anyone can list about Reagan, someone could come up with just as long a list about Obama. But what GOOD has Obama done? Let alone what BRILLIANT things has he done. The bar sure has been lowered for being considered a “brilliant” president. This is a country that used to have leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, and that is one of the few politicians I’d put into the category of “undeniably brilliant”.

    Additionally, I find it amusing that Larry Livermore, who pals around with big fans of commies (I gave just one example – Jello Biafra, who goes out of his way to praise commie dictator Hugo Chavez every chance he gets), likes to write about the evils of Ronald Reagan. One of the main reason Reagan was hated on the world’s stage is because he had the guts to stand up strong against communism. To the dismay of the pals of Larry Livermore.

    Those of you who want to continue disparaging and insulting the Tea Party movement with obscene sexual labels such as “teabaggers” are on notice that we are going to fight back and fight back hard. We are sick of you.

  • March 9, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    Thanks again Frantic… Reagan was awesome, Larry’s an asshole, some people are on notice. Got it.

    I find it amusing that of all the things you write so passionately about, the only thing that gets you fightin’ mad and riled up is the mention of a nutsack in a face.

    For my part, I do apologize for the obscene sexual terms. The obscene sexual labels. Both were inappropriate.

    Frantic the teabagger is feelin’ cocky and wants to get physical and give it on the chin.

    You either don’t know your audience or you are a genius troll and the only rube is me.

  • March 28, 2010 at 12:35 am

    Frantic, how old are you? Were you old enough to have clear memories of Reagan-era America? Do you remember the stock market crash of ’89 that was a result of Reagan’s Coolidge-esque policies? Do you remember how they had to create a new term, “stagflation”, to describe the economic malaise Reagan’s economic policies created in the early 80s? Do you recall how Reagan’s cowboy foreign policy brought the world as close to nuclear war than it ever had been before? Any of this ringing any bells with you?

    Sure he “won” the Cold War by outspending the Soviets and leading Gorbachev to decide the whole pissing contest was pointless. As for the rest of the fawning adoration you seem to have for the Gipper, well, let’s just say that it does strike many of us who were alive and aware during the Reagan years as misplaced.

  • March 28, 2010 at 12:39 am

    “Do you recall how Reagan’s cowboy foreign policy brought the world as close to nuclear war than it ever had been before?”

    Ooops, bad grammar on my part, that last bit should read “as close to nuclear war as it ever had been before.” I realized as I was typing my above statement that in 1953 the Doomsday Clock hit one minute to midnight, a feat repeated in 1984 due to escalation in the arms race, a key part of Reagan’s foreign policy.


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