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Design of the Times: Are we building a better Vermont? A look at four concrete examples 

click to enlarge MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen

Well, at least this year we know which millennium we’re in. Whether you thought it began in 2000 or 2001, it hit each of us full in the face on September 11. There’s no point in disputing the obvious. Compared to what instantly became known as the “Attack on America,” every other story you can think of this year shrank into insignificance, popped like a bubble and piddled on the floor. Too bad for “America” — too bad for us all — because in the rush to vengeance, the future, now hard upon us, won’t be seen for what it is: Fortress America was already here waiting in place before the Two Towers came down. (I’ll get to Tolkien in a minute; please be patient.)

You probably can’t remember it, can you — last January, February, March? Neither could I, until I looked back at some magazines and notes. Was it only a year ago that we bought a pig in a poke, George W. Bush, as president of the United States? Only a year since we saw the rule of law subverted by judicial fiat and heard our new “leader” described as “chairman of the board” by The Washington Post, “the public face who sets the tone and signs off on big decisions,” while the vice-president, Dick Cheney, keeps charge of “day to day operations?”

According to the Post, Cheney is a man who “values ends over means” — words to chill the American heart — and who “thrives in a rigid hierarchy that closely guards information. He chooses a small inner circle of advisors and tends to consult only with them. The Cheney mind-set is of a piece with the corporate view Bush takes of government.”

At least we know now why they keep whisking him off to places of safety, as if this were the French Revolution: Either Cheney’s dead and they won’t tell us, or his “mind-set” is regarded as more valuable than the president’s own, implying as it does that Cheney has a mind to start with.

Either way, the White House is closed to tourists this Christmas, on account of the terrorist threat, while Laura Bush declares the season’s theme to be “Home for the Holidays” — just not their home. The shuttering of the government began long before 9/11, however, when Dubya’s “planners” blocked the path of protestors at his inauguration.

“This is a day to suspend political passions,” said ABC News, wholly complicit, as are all corporate media, in the farce of the last election. Then, in July, the public was barred from the White House Independence Day bash, an event that normally makes room for about 11,000 people, first come, first served. The excuse du jour cited “fears of wear and tear on the White House grounds,” but, as Dubya now says so eloquently, “evil knows no holiday; evil doesn’t welcome Thanksgiving or the Christmas season. In these extraordinary times we’re taking extraordinary measures.”

Polls confirm that Americans are “supportive” but “concerned” about this tightening of the presidential screws, along with the suspension of civil liberties for anyone unlucky enough to be suspected of terrorism or its intent. Terrorism is the new Communism — a genuine threat, cynically manipulated by a government that came to power determined to keep America safe for corporate, oil and military interests.

“I don’t know when, in the last 20 years, I’ve heard so many members of both parties come up and say, what the heck is going on?” our own Senator Leahy exclaims. Good for you, Pat, but when Dubya signed the first of his “anti-terrorism” measures, I noticed you were standing right behind him, smiling and taking his picture.

Dubya’s approval ratings are currently in the stratosphere, but so were his father’s during the Gulf War, and so were Clinton’s at the top — or bottom — of the Lewinsky scandal. Bound by outrage and gripped with fear, Americans would rally around Donald Duck if they thought he could quack our way to victory. So, if 90 percent of all Americans now regard Dubya as the greatest president since Ronald Reagan, things may not be quite what they seem.

Indeed, we know they’re not, because Reagan’s back, too, all of a sudden — riding horses, bussing Nancy and grinning at cameras in a series of treacly TV retrospectives. Meanwhile Peggy Noonan’s ridiculous encomium, When Character Was King, sits fat and happy on the best-seller lists next to all those hobbits and germs. “If this were a dictatorship, it’d be a heck of a lot easier,” Dubya said before taking the job, and everybody laughed.

Now, of course, it’s risky to laugh. What with America’s New War, A Nation Challenged, etc., you might be taken for unpatriotic. Worse, you might get beaten in the street.

So, let’s move on and see if we can’t find something nice to say about A.D. 2001.

No? How about something sort of nice? Partly nice? Not too awful?

All right, then: As I write this, everyone’s in shock over the Osama bin Laden videotape, in which he smiles, tells jokes and gloats over the number of our citizens killed on September 11. No doubt about it, this guy is bad news. He’s been compared to Hitler, of course. Every enemy this country gets is compared to Hitler, sooner or later — remember Saddam Hussein? Khaddafi? The Evil Empire of Soviet Russia?

We were bombing Iraq last winter, I think, just when Hannibal sucked in $100 million at the box office and folks out West were getting ready to fry Timothy McVeigh. The number of executions in America is said to be “down” this year, as compared to last, but that’s only because they zapped a bunch of them at once in Y2K and emptied death row of a lot of malingerers. When it comes to the sanctity of human life, this nation is just a teeny bit schizoid.

I’ll skip the stem-cell research fracas, because science stops for no man or morality, and because “clones” are on their way whether we like it or not — at least in the form of extra limbs, fingers, toes, livers and so on. I don’t understand these people who don’t understand why others are upset about cloning. “If you keep telling man that he is nothing but an overgrown rat,” Arthur Koestler said, “he will start growing whiskers and bite your finger.”

Things aren’t any brighter on the cultural scene. “The war in Afghanistan and the threat of terrorism at home have people looking for new ways to escape into literature,” says USA Today, but don’t get your hopes up. Americans aren’t reading War and Peace or The Charterhouse of Parma. They’re reading the Harry Potter books and The Lord of the Rings, whose several volumes, along with The Hobbit, now occupy four of the top spots on USA Today’s best-seller list. “Fantasy is about as far from real life as one can go,” according to a spokesman for Bookreporter. com. I’d have thought death was farther, but maybe not: Half the population still believes in angels — that is to say, personal guardian angels — and the Dalai Lama now has six or seven best-sellers under his belt.

Americans love the Dalai Lama, because he doesn’t proselytize, offering instead religion “cafeteria-style” — just take what you want and leave the rest. Unlike the Pope, who sounds rather like an Afghan mullah in denouncing the “spiritual and moral impoverishment” of the decadent West. This year His Holiness took aim at the “slavish conformity” of Western culture, “its power in communications technology” and, of course, the “scientific advances that have led to cloning and the use of human embryos for research.”

Generally, the Pope is against the cult of “radical individualism, secularism and practical atheism,” which he calls “a phenomenon of vast proportions, sustained by powerful media campaigns,” and which he finds “damaging to other cultures.”

Get a life, John Paul! We’re currently at war to defend our right to chocolate lattes and DVDs — how long is this guy going to reign, anyhow? As to “communications” — well, you have to go back to Washington for that. The CIA is starting to work with Hollywood filmmakers and television producers “to get out the truth about the agency” — ha ha! Meanwhile, White House flack Dan Bartlett, in announcing plans to try suspected terrorists before military tribunals, declares: “From a communications standpoint, we have to do everything we can to provide the facts to the American people, but in a factual way.”

Quoting William Blake, “A truth that’s told with bad intent/Beats all the lies you can invent.”

But I doubt they teach Blake in the schools anymore. I don’t think they teach anything in the schools anymore, except “self-esteem” and how to get along without shooting each other. I’m touched and impressed by the eagerness of Americans to learn something about Islam, along with anthrax, in these terrible days, but, after English, history is the main casualty of education’s brutal dumbing-down. The word means nothing anymore, as witness the following, from The New York Times last July 31: “The film industry, which had been holding its collective breath hoping for a midsummer hit to pull it out of a flat season, finally had one last weekend with Planet of the Apes. It took in $69.5 million between Friday and Sunday, the biggest nonholiday three-day opening in history.”

See what I mean? It won’t be long before kids are majoring in “nonholiday three-day openings.” That’s if you can tear them away from their computer screens — a big “if.” A memo that crossed my desk this year from “Coin-Op Product Development” at Atari Games explains what children want in their crash-and-burn entertainments:

1. The game must involve an idea of death.

2. The game must have a representation of “violence,” but this need not be actual violence.

3. The game needs obstacles which increase the vulnerability to the “violence” that causes “death.”

4. There needs to be a representation of self which imparts a feeling of power.

5. Experience must be proportioned to short, scaleable segments.

There’s more, but it’s too depressing, and I’m running out of space.

I haven’t talked yet about sex, which had some big news this year, chiefly the exposure of conservative gay pundit Andrew Sullivan’s preference for “barebacking” — that is, anal sex without condoms. It wouldn’t bear mentioning, except that the very Catholic, very English Sullivan never tires of telling American homosexuals how sick and twisted they are, and how every nasty thing that happens to them, starting and ending with AIDS, is their own perverted fault.

Still, I felt sorry for Andrew, because the plot to bring him down was just that — a plot, led by Michelangelo Signorile, another gay pundit and a braying jackass of the homophile left. I know all about this, because I was invited to join the attack and declined. So, watch out, Mike — sue me for libel and I’ll settle your hash.

More sex: This year, for the first time, the word “transgendered” was admitted to the pages of the Gray Lady, The New York Times, which explained that it “covers a range of people, including heterosexual cross-dressers, homosexual drag queens and transsexuals who believe they were born in the wrong body. There are also those who consider themselves to be both male and female, or intersexed, and those who take hormones and believe that is enough to complete their gender identity without a sex change.”

In other words, “transgendered” means exactly what you want it to mean, and it doesn’t mean anything else, like every other word in the American lexicon.

Still more sex: In July, Susanna Kaysen, best-selling author of Girl, Interrupted, announced plans to write a book about her vagina. “If you have a vagina,” says Kaysen, “you know that most of the time it is without sensation. I have one, and something went wrong with it.”

I’ll say. Kaysen’s publishers, the once noble and distinguished Knopf, printed 150,000 copies of this thing, which I expect will be on the remainder table before you can say “vestibulitis,” which is apparently what Kaysen suffers from. Along with ego and big advances.

And just when Afghan women are liberated from the harem, American wives are going back in. Laura Doyle’s Surrendered Wife: A Practical Guide to Finding Intimacy, Passion and Peace with Your Man has done for married women what The Rules did for single ones a few years back — taught them how to be doormats, fuck-buckets and cooks.

“Strive to be vulnerable with your husband by baring your most tender feelings,” Doyle advises. “When you feel the fear of being rejected welling up, find your courage by reminding yourself that you are safe with your husband. Make yourself available for sex at least once a week, whether you feel like it or not.”

Doyle acknowledges that is “a tough concept for wives, modern wives, to come to grips with. But women have to ask themselves, do they want to be right, or do they want to be happy? If they want to fix their marriages, I believe surrendering is the answer.”

Actually, if you want to fix anything in this country, surrender is the answer. Just surrender and — poof! — the rich get a tax break. Surrender and — pow! — a million refugees wash up on shore. Surrender and — zap! — McVeigh is dead, Wal-Marts spring up, cities crumble and the wilderness is destroyed for good.

This may be the worst legacy of 9/11, because, with the nation on a war footing, “it is now possible to articulate an energy-security rationale that can offset environmental criticism,” according to Scott Segal, a Washington lawyer and lobbyist “for several industrial concerns.”

“In comparison to security issues,” Segal explains, “criticism premised on environmental protection begins to sound parochial and not selfless.” And, as we all know, “selflessness” is it. The U.S. Army now features a recruitment slogan called “An Army of One,” but warns that “no one should be worried that the Army is advocating self-centered behavior.” No, sir!

“They are going to get the ethic of selfless service, duty, honor and country,” says the brass, “in basic training and in every unit they are assigned to. But you’ve got to get them in the door to try selfless service. And you’ve got to let them know that, even though it is about selfless service, they are still individuals.”

Right. In case you were wondering, the German word for “leader” is Führer, and the word for “homeland” is Heimat, or, more famously, Vaterland. I leave you with the finest summation I’ve read this year of the sink-hole we’re in, from Nicholas von Hoffman of The New York Observer: “The bull-ditty of stand-pat, stay-still politics blares from every lamppost. The noise of do-nothing, say-nothing, move-nothing, change-nothing politics is deafening.”

Oh, and one more thing: All this unity and togetherness hasn’t made anyone nicer on the roads. Recently, in desperation, so we might at least have better sightlines, my partner went out and bought a — gasp! — SUV. Used, to be sure, but an SUV all the same. We call it the Ford Taliban, and note that its value is going down, down, down.

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