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Try and Catch the Wind

October 15, 2005
By Daniel Patrick Welch

To understand fully the nature of the American dilemma, one has only to view it from slightly outside the bubble. My wife and I have been restricted from foreign travel for various bureaucratic and financial reasons; but our sanity depends on hundreds of connections around the globe for perspective and comfort. The sea change in this perspective from without reveals the utter hopelessness of the U.S. position, and underscores a grave warning to those still willing or able to listen at home.

An interesting phenomenon, even in our small circle of friends, has unfolded over the past few years. At first, our foreign friends and contacts, stunned by the election debacle of 2000 and wary of warmonger Bush, seemed quite happy to have met and befriended members of the American "left." A sort of camaraderie developed as we commiserated over the decline of critical thought and the alarming state of what passes for debate on the U.S. political spectrum. Horrified by the runup to war, foreigners working far from home felt a certain comfort in knowing that not all Americans shared the President's bloodlust; the comfort, of course, was mutual. Then, as things didn’t get better, and in fact worsened with the 2004 election, these friends one by one sailed for safer seas. After all, they were on contract; they didn’t have family and cultural ties, and so were free to flee in horror and revulsion from what they saw America becoming.

And flee they did. At this writing, not a single one of our close circle has stayed stateside. It was as if those looking through the bubble from without let out a collective "Sucks to be you!" at their former allies in mutual fear. Bush’s reelection, for many of them, was the final straw: it’s one thing to blame the government instead of the people, but I mean come on—twice in a row?! These insights, of course, are personal and anecdotal; but they reflect the general bewilderment of those outside America’s borders, who shake their heads in disbelief. Finally, eventually, they must cut the cord and get on with their lives, like friends of a drunk who just can’t seem to hit bottom and wake up.

With contacts on many continents, I have tried to keep a line open to this audience—those who still might care what is going on over here—and have had the good fortune to have my columns translated in over 20 languages. But even this effort has slowed, as it seems fewer translators can get over questioning what the hell is wrong with us. Seems about right: you can only shovel shit against the tide for so long, I guess.

It may seem odd to write this just when liberals are expressing such glee over what they hope is the impending implosion of the Bush agenda. And I must admit I get a kick out of the flurry of indictments poised to rain down on this criminal cabal, certainly far better a fate than they deserve, or than they have meted out to their own enemies. And yes, Bush is struggling to reach even Nixonian levels in his own approval ratings. But what is disapproval to a man who should by all rights be in prison, or, by his own brand of justice, laying on one of his own guerneys in Texas waiting for one of his cronies to push the plunger. And what, pray tell, can the 37% of those polled who approve of Bush’s performance be thinking—who won’t see the writing on the wall, it seems, until they are trounced on the head with a big stick? [That might the subject of my next column, Waiting for the Locusts.]

And yes, Katrina revealed, however briefly, the deeply entrenched infrastructure of racism and classism that white America has tried to dismiss for centuries. But this opportunity to discuss poverty and race has largely disappeared, nipped at the heels by the next fresh horror out of Pakistan and Iraq. We have watched as they have set the agenda for the next hundred years, endangering our future in the world even for our children’s children. The world will not—and should not—forget the insatiable American lust for war, the torture, the depleted uranium, the slaughter of innocents, for as long as we are alive, at least. And as much fun as it is to see these bastards get a taste of their own medicine, it is sobering to remember just how much power they still wield. And they certainly won’t give it up without a fight. It took twelve years to bring the Nazi horror to heel, and the Bush war machine certainly isn’t facing military annihilation; not even a toenail trimming from his timid opponents in congress.

This realization offers some insight into what I see as the gulf between our fleeting optimism and the negative outlook of my parents’ generation. Past the tittilation of putting a few thieves in jail, the prospect of a 20-year struggle must be downright depressing for those nearing their eighties.

I realize that things are not quite yet as bad as they were in the McCarthy years, no matter how the civil libertarians might shriek. But they also have the unprecedented capacity to get much worse in an instant. The police state stands at hair-trigger readiness, waiting for the flick of the first domino by Bush or some future zealous front man. We are seeing the perfect storm that libertarians and anarchists alike have warned us about for generations: the unholy merger of the überstate and corporate hegemony.

And the juggernaut rolls on. Since the dawn of the industrial era (and maybe long before, but at least since then) the forces of reaction have eventually mastered every challenge thrown at them, from the idea of democracy itself to trade unionism to the abolition of slavery and apartheid to universal suffrage. The people have often valiantly fought back, winning concessions and bits of progress at enormous cost. Now, through a witches' brew of manufactured consent, unprecedented concentration of media ownership, outright tampering and old fashioned fraud, they may finally have dispensed with the pesky notion of election once and for all.

If this sounds dark, maybe I should elucidate. I don't feel quite as despairing as this may sound. At most it takes the edge of my most recent unwarranted bout of giddiness. Since the very beginning of my own political formation, I have always thought that we were involved in a lifelong struggle, a labor of love and conviction whose fruits we might never see. But I have always harbored an ideological and rhetorical, if not altogether practical, faith in the power of people to resist. Every so often a shaft of light breaks through, my latest epiphany being the massive popular resistance to the Iraq war that helped box in the Bush administration and fray its alliances. Holy shit! I thought as I gazed down Second Ave, maybe we will see radical change in our lifetime. And poof—like a mirage, it was gone. There are some bright spots, not least the apparent general revulsion of even the American public. And right wing hegemony in the media is being challenged on many fronts, on the Internet, and even on talk radio itself. My wife commented recently on the ubiquity of satellite, allowing, among other things, workers at a local sub shop to watch the Greek Parliament. "My God," she said, if we can't even stand American TV news, imagine how foreigners must feel!"

So no, of course I'm not suggesting that we give up the fight. Quite the contrary. Those fighting for a more just social order should never flinch; we should take advantage of any opportunities that present themselves, electoral or organizational, to make even the smallest dent in the onslaught. When the boat is sinking, you bail with whatever you can: if the pumps fail, use buckets; if there are no buckets, use your hands.

"In the chilly hours and minutes of uncertainty," the song goes, we are perhaps forbidden by our debt to future generations from losing hope. Maybe the "opposition" party will rise to the occasion and embrace fundamental change, though it has done so in only two brief shining moments in its own history. Maybe the world community, beyond minor sniping, will sanction the US as a pariah state and force change upon us. Maybe the people themselves will rise up and demand change. If only they would disapprove in the way Mussolini’s people did. Maybe Karl Rove really will be frog-marched out of the White House. There are a million ways in which this house of greasy, blood-stained cards could come crashing down. Nothing would make me happier. "'twould make me sing," as the song goes. There may be more hopeful days ahead; but for now, the song seems to end as written by Donovan, "…Ah, but I might as well try and catch the wind."

 
Writer, singer, linguist and activist Daniel Patrick Welch lives and writes in Salem, Massachusetts, with his wife, Julia Nambalirwa-Lugudde. Together they run The Greenhouse School.

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