Narcotized by Narratives
Recently I ran into an old friend I had not seen in many years. Nina was a dancer when I knew her, but she had since switched careers to work in prisons and pursue a doctorate in social policy. She told me about upstate towns where prisons were the only industry. She told me about small-time drug offenders serving decades for being caught with a few bags of narcotics—the tragic legacy of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. She also told me that New York is about to spend $70 million to construct a high-security prison upstate for juvenile offenders. "If you think about what this means, you realize the government is condemning nine-year-olds today. They will be the ones filling that prison, when it is up and running five years from now."
By the time you read this, assuming Congress has approved the proposed Bush military budget, the U.S. will be spending more money on its military than all of the other countries in the world combined. Let that sink in for a moment. Think about all of the guns and bombs and jet fighters and missiles and satellite-mounted lasers we are creating to be used in some near-future theater of horror. The only good news is that the Pentagon is prey to graft and fraud on an incomprehensible scale—$2.3 trillion missing in the year 1999 alone, according to a recent CBS news story. The thievery doesn’t obscure the fact that our society has become a terrifying war machine.
For more than a decade, I have been an editor of this literary magazine. Right now, I think we are in a situation where culture—at least the essentially apolitical culture we have promoted and practiced in the last few decades—has simply ceased to matter. Have we reached a point where novels, poems, films, and art works have become pointless decorations as we skate toward the edge of the abyss? By pretending that our culture still matters when the world’s fate is at stake, are we lying to ourselves? Are we simply narcotizing ourselves with narrative, avoiding the need for committed action in the world?
Should we recognize that Arundhati Roy—the Indian novelist recently imprisoned by the Indian Supreme Court for speaking out against her government—was not only speaking about India but also about America today when she wrote: "After all, we don’t want to be like good middle-class Germans in the 1930s, who drove their children to piano classes and never noticed the concentration camps springing up around them—or do we?"
I know this sounds like an extremist position—and a rather ironic one for the founder of an art and literary journal—but personally I think it is the case. (In writing this, I do not speak for the other editors of Open City, only for myself.) From my own perspective, until our society has reckoned with the destructive forces we are unleashing around the world, as well as the forces of internal repression that threaten to disable the possibility of dissent itself, our "culture" has no validity, no meaning, no substance. If anything, it has become an inoculation against conscience. By indulging in it, we are wasting what little time we may have left.
A mass subversion of our government and our most vital rights has taken place before our eyes. Those of us who belong to the intelligentsia and contribute to the mainstream media have, for the most part, been eerily silent and unquestioning before this onslaught. In the wake of the September 11 attack, we have allowed a thick atmosphere of anxiety, a dreamlike torpor, to settle over us and obscure the extremely dangerous realities of our present situation. It is time to wake up from the dream.
Under provisions of the hastily passed and congressionally unscrutinized "U.S. Patriot Act," the government is currently assembling a vast domestic spying apparatus. Once this apparatus is assembled, we can rest assured that it will be unleashed on us.
While there is still time, we can recall the lessons of history. We can recover our voices, the will to protest and resist.
Growing up in a world of seeming superabundance, my generation was deluded by a shallow culture of cynicism, egocentrism, hedonism, and technological distractions. If we are willing to begin to admit to ourselves that this is how we have lived, we may need to start asking ourselves if this is also how we are planning to die.
History tells us many things. It tells us that those who willingly give up their freedom do not easily get it back—in fact, by the time they realize what they have lost, they often have to pay for their mistake with their lives. Everything in our present situation—the dictatorial swagger of Bush and his henchmen, the one-dimensional discourse of endless war, the global arrogance of this treaty-trampling rogue state—suggests we are headed for a high-speed replay of the Twentieth Century’s worst tragedies: authoritarian control (in other words, Fascism), unwinnable wars fought against guerrilla insurgents in Afghanistan and Colombia (in other words, one, two, many Vietnams), not to mention the suddenly quite plausible use of nuclear weapons.
The history of America also tells us that mass resistance and protest can be amazingly effective. The protests and struggles of the 1960s created new civil rights and civil liberties and led directly to the end of the war in Vietnam.
The events of September 11 should have caused a national rethinking of our foreign policies and energy priorities around the world. Instead, they have led us into a regressive retrenchment, and propelled us on a potentially disastrous course of action. As a society, we seem to have lost the ability to connect actions—for instance, our unbridled overconsumption of the world’s finite resources—with their eventual consequences.
Although it is frightening enough these days, the mainstream media does its best to hide the realities of our current situation. Luckily, for the time being at least, the Internet hosts many alternative Web sites that comb through sources from around the world to bring us the news—such as smirkingchimp, buzzflash, truthout, tompaine, alternet, and many more, not to mention European newspapers. Here, if you have the guts for it, you can discover astonishing things. To take one example from the daily onslaught: according to a recent Le Monde article, the U.S. Army has been secretly using bombs of depleted uranium in the Afghanistan mountains. That means that some of those areas have been permanently contaminated. Like many other stories, this casual use of radioactive weapons has not been reported in the U.S. media. As we gear up for global war, one wonders how much of the world will be converted into uninhabitable wasteland before our government abandons its current strategy.
If there is another terrorist attack, will it surprise anybody if our executive branch uses it as an excuse to declare martial law? What else would the Republican secret government be planning in their hidden bunkers?
Where are the American cultural and intellectual heroes to speak out against what is being done? Where can we find local equivalents to Arundhati Roy, who has admitted that the literary game is over for her until some smidgen of hope is salvaged from the planetary piracy, the dislocations and destructions, that have been the result of unleashed corporate globalization?
To quote Roy again: "What is happening to our world is almost too colossal for human comprehension to contain. But it is a terrible, terrible thing. To contemplate its girth and circumference, to attempt to define it, to try and fight it all at once, is impossible. The only way to combat it is by fighting specific wars in specific ways."
At this moment, we are extremely lucky that it is not already too late to fight to change the situation in any way. We still have a chance to make history rather than fall as hapless victims of it.
Sometimes I suspect that the "War on Terrorism" and the descent into authoritarianism, terrible as they are, are mere distractions from the real crisis facing us—not as individuals or even nations, but as a species. There was no winter in New York this winter. The weather was reported to be 7.7 degrees above average, but it felt much warmer than that. Rapid changes in climate threaten water supplies and agricultural yields around the world. As Ross Gelbspan writes in his book, The Heat Is On, we need a "Manhattan Project" for slowing down the accelerating process of Global Warming. We also need a “Marshall Plan” to switch to renewable energy in the next decade or two as the oil supply starts to run out. Clearly, this need can only be articulated by those of us who belong to what was once called "Civil Society," outside the bought-and-sold culture of politicians and corporate experts. Civil Society, a potential "third force" outside of government and corporations, consists of writers and artists and activists and all of those who preserve enough independence to study the facts and interpret the situation in an unbiased way. Civil Society exists only through us—if and when we make it happen.
If millions of us immediately galvanize ourselves and our friends, educate ourselves, exhort our congressmen to fight for truth, write impassioned letters to cut through the media’s dreary deceptions, go to demonstrations (such as the anti-war demonstrations taking place in front of the White House from April 20–22), at the very least a message will be sent that we still have a conscience and a consciousness. We might shift the gravitational force of abysmal greed that is dominating our policies and dragging us toward destruction.
We might prevent nuclear war.
New York City