Monday, February 22, 2010

A Ghoulish Populism

"How's that hope-y, change-y thing workin' for ya?" This was Tea Party icon Sarah Palin a couple of weeks ago, always devout but ever so subtly vicious, stoking her fan base at the first official Tea Party Convention in Nashville--people who came from all over America to watch the media superstar dispense her "pitch-perfect populism" aimed at leading the GOP to political El Dorado. Interviewed shortly afterwards by Chris Wallace of Fox News, Palin was asked what her approach to foreign policy would be if she were elected president. "That's easy," she replied. "We win, you lose." Now you tell me, how irresistible is that? Andrew Sullivan, who live-blogged the entire 40-minute speech, had this to say afterward: "If you are one of those people who think this person cannot become president of the United States, think again."

Republicans, according to Frank Rich in the New York Times, have fully embraced what he calls "the Palin shtick," namely, the notion that Republicans are the anti-big-government, anti-stimulus, anti-Wall Street, pro-Tea Party tribunes of the common folk. It's all part of the new "populist putsch" by which the GOP is rebranding itself as anti-Washington and linking Democrats to corporate interests. "This GOP populism is all bunk," Rich writes, "but they're getting away with their 'Populist masquerade.'"

Reading the words "Populist masquerade," I couldn't help thinking of that once-revered puppet team, Punch and Judy. Sarah Palin is indisputably the GOP's Judy, but who among the vast mishmash of ill-assorted and ill-equipped male candidates, is destined to become her Punch? Republicans all know there is a glaring vacuum here, and last week at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (famously known as CPAC), they were desperately trying to fill it, using this year's event as more of a nominating process to flush out the Party's leading lights.

Conspicuously absent from the CPAC proceedings were Sarah and Rush, but the rest of the GOP crowd who (rather like the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Shabat in Somalia) would like to topple the government and gain control of the nation, were out in full force. As I followed a live-blogging account of the 3-day conference on HP and saw excerpts from some of the speeches on TV, Punch and Judy slowly morphed into something much bigger: Grand Guignol. This was literally the Theater of the Big Puppet, which existed in Paris in Place Pigalle from 1897 to 1962, and specialized in naturalistic horror shows.

The term is still used for graphic, amoral horror entertainment, a genre first popular in Elizabethan and Jacobean theater. And when I discovered the above photo on the Internet--of Grand Guignol actors in a production demonstrating the "face-frying technique"--I knew I had hit pay dirt. The image meshed perfectly with CPAC's "stomping carpet," which was embedded with the faces of MSNBC pundits like Keith Olbermann, along with an invitation to "stomp on me."

Of course, the face really being fried and stomped on at CPAC's destruction derby was that of Barack Obama.
Mitt Romney kicked off by calling Obama's presidency a failure. John Boehner complained that Obama had slapped the table and wagged his finger at him during a White House meeting, ostensibly for scaring the American public into a state of economic anxiety. Tim Pawlenty suggested Republicans take a cue from Tiger Woods' wife and use a 9-iron to smash the window of big government in this country. Dick Cheney, who appeared unannounced and received a standing ovation, stated officiously that Obama was a one-term president, while his daughter Liz declared that "There is no polite way to put this: Obama's incompetence is getting people killed." For three days the place was rife with toxic hypocrisy, caustic ignorance, and the determination to do damage to Obama--all under the guise of being saviors to working-class Americans. One could only conclude that Conservatives, with their amoral melodramas, unpredictable manias, and macabre ironies, are true heirs to the golden age of Grand Guignol and its nihilistic universe where there is retribution but no justice.

So, in this crazed and sinister production with all the stops out, which conquistador emerges as the front-runner, the penultimate Punch? Answer: Ron Paul. If you don't believe me, check out the Straw Poll stats below:

Ron Paul wins CPAC 2010 straw poll.
Romney makes a healthy second, way ahead of the rest of the pack.
Ron Paul 31%
Mitt Romney 22%
Sarah Palin 7%
Tim Pawlenty 6%
Mike Pence 5%
Newt Gingrich 4%
Mike Huckabee 4%
Mitch Daniels 2%
John Thune 2%
Rick Santorum 2%
Haley Barbour 1%

AAnd if you want to leave the Theater of Horrors feeling good about what you've just seen, consider the reassuring thoughts of Atlantic blogger Marc Ambinder, who captures the contradictions these folks are managing to produce in the mass psyche as they busy themselves turning our world inside out:

"As the political world tries to make sense of the cartography of the Republican Party -- where does Ron Paul fit in? Is CPAC too libertarian? Does Mitt Romney speak the language of the conservative base? How does CPAC relate to the Tea Party movement? How do Ron Paul and Sarah Palin relate to the Tea partiers? How does the Republican primary base intersect with -- or does it -- with the Tea Party movement -- and what does this augur for 2010 --?"

Monday, February 15, 2010

Winter Blues & the Perfume of Orchids

For the time being, my sunny, talking alligator and blogging assistant, Virgil, has deserted me--having fled, no doubt, to warmer climes somewhere in the land of water moccassins, canoes, and murky swamp waters. As for me, I'm still channeling Nanook, here in the Virginia tundra. I was pleasantly stopped in my tracks this week by a midget snow poem written by Robert Bly, published in a recent New Yorker:


The snow is falling, and the world is calm.
The flakes are light, but they cool the world
As they fall, and add to the calmness of the house.
It's Sunday afternoon. I am reading
Longinus while the Sugar Bowl is on.
The snow is falling, and the world is calm.

Much as I love Robert Bly's poetry, I couldn't find myself anywhere in this poem, peacefully at home, reading Longinus in a calm world. I wish I could, but I can't. There is no way I'd ever be caught reading Longinus; the snow this winter is positively demonic; and the world I live in is anything but calm. I am not calm. I shovel and worry, worry and shovel.

"You were oh so close for a minute there," writes my friend Paul Zenner in an email. "I thought Mr. Zinn may have turned you toward the light. That's okay. We'll keep throwing switches and pushing those positive buttons and sooner or later, the light will shine." Paul is a master at making me confront my own darkness--my Armageddon complex. He would like me to take the world a little less seriously, to be of faith and good cheer instead. However, to do that, I'd have to become somebody else.

I also read what David Brooks wrote in the New York Times about his experience of the recent DC blizzard and losing power. These were thoughts I could more easily relate to:

"I set out across the driveway in search of woolly mammoths to eat. Suddenly everything Keith Olbermann says started to make sense. I was down to the primitive core...And so I wonder if my general political sentiments these days are the result of my journey into the heart of coldness or something broader. To be brief, I’ve never been more depressed about Washington’s ability to do anything. I also have the feeling we’re in for a miserable period for political opiners — all that we’ll be covering is a nasty set of squabbles over small amounts of money that are not there."

Later on, I heard him say, in an hourlong interview with Charlie Rose, that he fears the country has become ungovernable. In talking with his political friends on the Hill, it was clear to him that any hope of bipartisanship is dead in the water. Belly up like a diseased seal. Brooks seems as depressed about this as I am.

New Yorker columnist Hendrik Hertzberg believes that Obama's passion for bipartisanship and commitment to the reforms he campaigned on are genuine--but that Republican rancor will not allow any legislation to pass that could be viewed as an accomplishment for him. If health care reform ends up failing, it's hard to see how they will be able to do anything else, he says. "The damage to their ability to govern--the damage to the ability of the country to govern itself--will be severe."

So here's my problem: I think these things really matter. But I don't know how to write about them without sounding alarmist--or expressing grief. I would prefer, as I've said before, to send out sweet, quenching drafts of love and light to anyone who actually bothers to read this blog, but it would be a transgression, and a falsification, of how I really feel. So I don't know what to do. Whenever I really don't know what to do, I end up consulting the I Ching.

The I Ching is suggesting, in this case, that the difficulties and obstacles within the situation are causing me much sorrow. [Check!] To break through a tough situation, it says, people need to work together in harmony, as in an alliance. [Listen up, hear ye, calling all Republicans.] Seeking harmony begins with crying and weeping, but ends with laughing. The great multitude succeeds in meeting--and after great struggles (the I Ching proposes), they succeed in meeting and celebrate the victory. [Can you even imagine it? Some positive legislation is passed, and everyone celebrates the victory?]

An old Chinese axiom states that "people in the same boat help each other, sharing weal and woe." Seeking harmony, with government serving the common interest--yes, the I Ching really does say this, I am not making it up--turns out that this was something the ancient Chinese dreamed of day and night.

In the matter of whether it is okay to write when you are feeling down, my hexagram [Fellowship with Men] counsels that if I openly express my distress, I will find that it generates similar expressions from my fellow man. Then together we can overcome the difficult time and there will be much joy in the newfound unity. So it is decided: I will continue to "openly express my distress," and stop worrying about whether its having a bad effect or adding to the world's already overstocked misery.

Confucius once said:

Whether in charge of a government or being a hermit,
Or keeping quiet or making a comment,
When two people become one in their hearts
They are as sharp as a knife that is able to cut iron.
They cherish the same idea and follow the same path;
Their words are like the perfume and fragrance of orchids.

She studies the wall as if planning to hang something cheery, maybe some Monet haystacks or even orchids. At the edge, one final row of lavender azaleas. (She is still wearing her sunglasses and hospital pajamas.) Outside, in the randomly broken world, it begins to snow again. She bends over to inhale the perfume of orchids now infused with her own words.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Nanook of the North Speaks

Are you snowed in there? I hollered out to my friend Bill Rutherfoord in an email. (The question was completely redundant, since he lives only an hour away in Roanoke, and I'm up to my navel here in Blacksburg.) Groundhog has declared six more weeks before help comes. Snow, sleet, and freezing rain is the ongoing refrain issuing from the radio. Some interesting comparative statistics in the local paper revealed that Blacksburg is a mere one inch behind the snowfall level for Anchorage, Alaska. Repeat: Alaska! And after this weekend's storm, we'll actually top out their measly 36.9 inch count. (A year ago on this date Roanoke had four-tenths of an inch snow total for the entire season.)

Nanook of the North, you have nothing on me.

But recurrent snow incarceration is only part of this winter's edgy discontent. The transient glow from Obama's State-of-the-Union address last week is wearing off, all too quickly. I read somewhere that the whole effort got him only a one-point boost in the polls. I hardly know which is making me feel worse anymore--snow or politics--but looking for enlightenment right now is a bit like searching for a lost sock in the dryer. Good luck with that! I suppose, I wrote to Bill, you're having a ball just painting your little heart out while the snow-chips fall?

Not really, he wrote me back. The cold has all but stopped my efforts in the basement. It's so cold I can't think, and after a few minutes of trying to paint, my fingers sting from exposure. Then there is the groundwater problem. It percolates through the foundation, rendering the studio floor an inland sea...And yes, he agreed, the post-speech glow was short-lived, but that came as no surprise and so we're back to no country, no direction, infantile obstructionist politics, the continued dismantling of the middle class, and a slick, soulless art world that hates the work of the hand. I now paint for spite. High culture is only wrecked if people like me allow ourselves to be stopped by the banality of evil....

I guess it's all about who you find yourself with in the lifeboat, isn't it? I confess I do groove on the idea of painting "for spite." Sometimes it feels like I'm living back in 300 BC, when Hindus, too, were convinced they lived in a "degenerate and unfortunate time," the lowest point in the cosmic cycle.

Maybe, I tell myself contritely, I need to spackle over all this despair and produce, say, just one good giddy thing. Even a laugh would do. Maybe it's time to bury Caesar, along with all my chronic woes and the feeling that we are living in the world's last decent days--and try, instead, to sparkle, radiate, make bright, dispel the darkness, become luminous, let the light come through. Hey! did I really say that?

So here I am, as usual looking for light in all the wrong places, when it suddenly appears of its own accord in, of all places, my email box. Someone has forwarded to me a collection of thoughts by the political analyst and activist Howard Zinn, who died just recently. The quotes are culled from his latest book "A Power Governments Cannot Suppress," in which Zinn claims that governments cannot suppress the people, who are always on the march making change inevitable. These are some of Zinn's prescriptions for reviving lost hope and remaining healthy, without becoming resigned or cynical:

" I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world."

"There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people's thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible."

We need hope, according to Zinn, and being hopeful in bad times is not being foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of competition and cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, and kindness. Perhaps, he adds, quoting Arundhati Roy, "Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."

I can only hope to God, in the context of these positively numbing political and snow-driven times, "she is on her way" does not refer to Chicken Lips Sarah Palin, and her mongrel band of tea-party followers. Because, on a quiet day, as our institutions loudly crumble and collapse, I can indeed hear her breathing. And afterwards, when she pushes the podium aside and we lose the election, we will soon enough become the prisoners of her populist rebellion.