Thursday, December 13, 2012
The Sorrow and Rage of a Schoolhouse Rocker
But in between all that visual junkfood—all of which I’ve long since forgotten—there were these little animated films that played during the commercial breaks, called “Schoolhouse Rock!”.
The “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoons were two-minute masterpieces, with bold drawings and incredibly catchy songs, each explaining a different academic subject or topic. Famous ones were “Conjunction Junction”, “Three Is A Magic Number”, “The Great American Melting Pot”, “I’m Just a Bill”, “The Preamble”.
Consider how good, how wonderfully entertaining these little educational cartoons must have been: I am now 44 years old, but I can sing—off the top of my head—maybe a dozen of the “Schoolhouse Rock” songs.
For instance, the chorus to one of my favorites—“Interjection!”:
“Interjection! For excitement! For emotion!
It’s generally set apart from a sentence
By an exclamation point—
Or by a coma when the feeling’s not as strong . . .”
Or another one:
“Conjunction Junction, what's your function?
Hooking up words and phrases and clauses.
Conjunction Junction, how's that function?
I got three favorite cars that get most of my job done.
Conjunction Junction, what's their function?
I got ‘and’, ‘but, and ‘or’—they’ll get you pretty far.”
I did not ever forget what an interjection or a conjunction was, or ever confuse the two—all because of those two little ditties. If only I’d learned calculus and physics that way, Einstein’d have nothing on me.
Of course, the “Schoolhouse Rock” tunes that had the most impact on my imagination were the civics and history ones—because they told a story: And as anybody can tell you, every six year-old loves a good story.
“I’m Just a Bill” explained how a poor little Bill got to become a law: First by being presented in the House of Representatives, then going through committee, then going to the floor of the Senate, then back through committee, then approval, then Presidential signature, then a law.
For a mere two-minute cartoon, “I’m Just a Bill” was remarkably sophisticated about the American legislative process. Not only did it explain the relationship of the House, Senate and President, but it also explained the ins and outs of the committee procedure—and it explained it all dramatically to boot: When the Bill’s friend the Congressman burst through a door at the end, running towards him as he yelled, “He signed you, Bill! Now you’re a Law!!”, I was genuinely excited—as if a friend of mine had had something wonderful happen to him.
“My grandmother came from Russia
A satchel on her knee,
My grandfather had his father's cap
He brought from Italy.
They'd heard about a country
Where life might let them win,
They paid the fare to America
And there they melted in . . .”
Those are the first verses of “The Great American Melting Pot”. I looked up these lyrics on the internet, because in my memory, they were all garbled: I could remember the tune, but not the exact words, even though the ones in my memory were surprisingly close to the actual lyrics. Certainly the sentiment was there.
And certainly some of the memories I have of that “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoon are far more vivid than a lot of other things I’ve watched over the years—even things I paid scrupulously close attention to: For instance, I can hardly remember anything of The Bicycle Thief or any of the other Italian neo-realist films I deliberately watched and studied during a phase I went through a few years ago—but I remember in great detail how, in “The Great American Melting Pot”, the Statue of Liberty took the book she carries, flipped it open and started leafing through it, as the chorus went:
“Lovely Lady Liberty
With her book of recipes
And the finest one that she found
Was the Great American Melting Pot
The Great American Melting Pot . . .”
Of course, of all the “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoons, “The Preamble” is a masterpiece. It’s about the Constitution: In two minutes, it explains what the Constitution is, the history of why it was created, what it’s about—and in one absolute stroke of genius, the chorus is the actual Preamble, sung by cheerfully confident voices, neither rushed nor slow, all in unison, sounding like a wonderful singing troupe you would just love to be friends with, and to be a part of:
“We the People,
In order to form a more perfect union,
Establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility,
Provide for the common defense,
Promote the general welfare,
And secure the blessings of liberty,
Do ordain and establish this Constitution
Of these United States of America . . .”
I can remember quite clearly singing along to the cartoon, as I stared at the television screen in 1974. Those lyrics above are what I can sing today—from memory—of that little ditty. Now here is the actual Preamble of the Constitution:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
As you can see, I’ve only forgotten the “to ourselves and our Posterity” line (which is actually in the song—I checked, after I wrote down what plays in my memory). Pretty good, after 38 years, wouldn’t you say?
Thirty-eight years. Almost thirty-nine. Jeez: It sounds like so long ago, when you write it out like that. But I can hear all these songs in my head as clearly as if they were playing on the radio right now.
Remembering these songs—so ingrained in my young mind that they became grooves running the length of my soul, grooves that shaped my soul—I can’t help but feel a dreadful, awful mixture of confusion and sorrow and rage for the things that have happened since then. The things that have happened to the America I was raised in, and which I grew up believing in.
I was in high-school when the “Morning in America” vibe started percolating through the culture: Arrogant and stupid and ignorant, with mindless staccato chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” in the Los Angeles Olympics of ’84 that reminded me with troubling insistence of something out of the Nuremberg of the 1930’s, even as you could practically feel how the culture was turning like a riptide into something more materialistic: More obsessed with things than with accomplishments—as if the accumulation of things were some sort of accomplishment.
If in my boyhood the cultural value was authenticity and independence, then starting with the hucksterish bullshit of “Morning in America” in the ’80’s, the value became money, and making more of it—so opposed to the egalitarian immaterialism implicit in the “Schoolhouse Rock” ditties.
I was in college in the early ’90’s when the Diversity Bomb hit—people militantly “celebrating their differences” in a way which, to me, struck me as divisive and destructive of the wider society. It was as if Diversity were being pursued by way of shattering the wider culture, balkanizing the whole of American society into little independent fiefdoms that were separate and antagonistic and blind to one another.
My own parents—immigrants both—had never questioned the notion of assimilation into the wider culture: They had “American” friends, they watched Walter Cronkite every night, they spoke proper English even with each other, and of course never dreamed of obliging people to speak Spanish to them. There was no need—they were American. They never even spoke Spanish to me while we lived in the United States—which is why, ironically, I have a very faint foreign accent when I speak Spanish, but none when I speak English.
They believed, inarticulately, in assimilation—and that’s what they taught me, by example: You weren’t special because of where you came from or what you were born into—you were special because of what you did. My parents were poor students when I was born in ’68, living in a one-bedroom apartment on Pearl Street in Los Angeles—but by the time my kid sister was born in ’74, they owned a four-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath home with a kidney-shaped pool in a nice neighborhood of Northridge; with two late-model cars and a boat, even.
“They'd heard about a country
Where life might let them win,
They paid the fare to America
And there they melted in . . .”
Yet so much of the Culture Wars of the ’80’s and ’90’s—when everything was about “Diversity”, and the word “assimilation” was for all intents and purposes an insult—really turned on not only not “melting in”: It depended on finding someone “special” not because of their achievements, but because of inherent factors they had no control over—like their sex, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, or if all else failed, their being the victim of minor or outright imaginary hurts and offenses.
Worse still: Diversity allowed you to give up on making something of yourself, and instead wallow in self-pity and narcissim. It gave you permission to ignore your lack of real achievement, and instead feel yourself “special” for the mere fact of being “unique”—unique solely because of factors you had been born into, and not achieved on your own.
From my point of view—as a confirmed assimilationist, unconsciously humming the tune to “The Great American Melting Pot” under my breath—the whole notion of Diversity was as racist and as hateful as Segregation had been in the 1950’s and ’40’s and before.
If Segregation made you special—and thus privileged—because you were white or rich or powerful, Diversity made you special because you were black or gay or a woman or a victim—which is why in my mind, Diversity and Segregation amounted to exactly the same thing: You were special passively—not actively. You did nothing to achieve it—you just lucked into it. You were born into it. And this specialness gave you privileges and perks unavailable to those who were not: A spot at a name university, a lucrative government contract, a coveted job at a corporation. All you need do is emphasize your difference, your “diversity”—
—and if all else failed, your victimhood. Being a victim was the way white people could become minorities—and just like being a minority, being a victim gave them a special status, even if this “victimhood” had to be manufactured, as so much of it was.
Seeing this “Diversity” as the cultural norm—seeing it as the dominant outlook of my social class, the class of educated, high-achieving, ambitious individuals—I recoiled in contempt and disgust, even as this cultural norm swept me aside and turned my peers into narcissists and navel-gazers, with whom I had less and less in common.
I was a grown man when 9/11 happened—in fact, I had been living not three blocks away from the World Trade Center for several years before 9/11. I had only left America a mere month before the terrorist incidents.
People I knew died on 9/11—people I knew by name, and knew well, people whom I had invited to my loft for drinks and poker and parties, and had had good times with. People who had been my friends.
As much as anyone, I wanted justice—
—but I watched, at first confused, as 9/11 brought forth the War on Terror: An open-ended war—so similar to the pointless, endless War on Drugs—whose stated goal could never be achieved. Even to a child, it was obvious that a “war on terror” was as pointless as a “war on flanking maneuvers”, or a “war on assault rifles”—after all, terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy to be defeated.
But then I slowly, so slowly realized—to my horror and disbelief—that what the War on Terror was really about was keeping America on a permanent war footing. “Terrorists”—so vague and ill-defined—could be anyone, not just the people who actually carried out 9/11. At first, I didn’t understand why the perpetrators of 9/11 were not pursued, and instead all this effort was spent on Saddam Hussein: All this money spent invading and then occupying Iraq, when Saddam had had nothing to do with 9/11.
The point of announcing the Global War on Terror? A blank check to wage war on anybody, anywhere on earth. Because too many people in America stood to make too much money and flex too much power, if they could go to war with whomever they wanted.
To fight this Global War on Terror—as if to make a cruel mockery of the simple little ditties I’d grown up singing along to—laws were passed which short-circuited everything I’d been brought up to believe in about the fairness of the American system.
Due process? Out the window. Habeas corpus? A thing of the past. Laws were passed under the sternly nodding visages of democratically elected leaders, laws that would have been outrageous in 1974, laws that had the brass to call themselves “patriotic”: Laws that allowed total surveillance of the citizenry, laws that allowed immoral searches and seizures—laws that for all intents and purposes essentially laid the foundations for a fascist police-state in America.
Finally laws that allowed torture.
And finally finally: Laws that allowed murder.
Murder by the American government—a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”—murder by the American government of American citizens.
In my head, I can hear the chorus of “The Preamble”, the lyrics cheerfully, confidently bouncing along, while drone aircraft scream overhead, dropping death by remote control on people who are no different from me, and who might well one day be me—which is obviously going to happen, the endgame of this slide: In time, we will have a fascist police-state in America.
It’s inevitable, if nothing is done: These three strains over the last 40 years—“Morning in America”, the Diversity Bomb, and the War on Terror—are each a rung on a ladder leading down.
The mindless “Morning in America” mindset bred an arrogance and ignorance in the American people which is simply without end. It’s not just the ignorance, it’s not just the arrogance—it’s the deadly combination of the two. It’s what leads so much of the American people to jingoistically clamor and bay for war!-war!-war! against anyone, against everyone, for no rational reason they can articulate. They’re too ignorant to use reason, and too proud to change—or even admit that they’re wrong—even when the evidence piles up with every dead innocent body.
The Diversity Bomb created a people who do not define themselves by what they do, but rather by who they are, making them endlessly gaze at the mirror, while horrors go on behind their backs, ignored. Ask any New Yorker, and she’ll tell you all about Lena Dunham’s $3.5 million book deal—but nothing on the war in Yemen. “We’re at war there too?” she might ask. “Huh!” she’ll say, and no more.
And the support for the War on Terror? The logical next step of a narcissistic people. Only narcissists would so clamor about safety. Only an ignorant, arrogant people drunk on amour propre—as opposed to amour de soi—would panic so easily, so hysterically, as Americans collectively did after 9/11. And that panic, that safety-paranoia, that mindless fear that 9/11 triggered in the American people led to the War on Terror.
And what did we get from the War on Terror? Safety? Please. We got a national security facehugger monster, and a people who will willingly acquiesce to any indignity, any violation of their basic human rights, all in an effort to comply.
Comply, complied, compliant, compliance—words that all just really mean “surrender”. A euphemism which Americans use to explain away their willingness to stand in an orderly line, and strip for the man in the crisp uniform and the latex gloves. A word which is the sole reason for their willingness to raise their hands in surrender before the backscatter x-ray machine, and let themselves be turned transparent, hollow, empty by the beams of the security machine—a process that turns a human being into a thing without rights.
Americans allow this—with no complaints. So compliant. So complaisant. The way of the world in 2012.
Don’t think so? OK—then think Nixon in ’74: Remember how people clammored for his impeachment because he was bombing Cambodia? Now, today, in 2012, Americans don’t bat an eye when Obama murders U.S. citizens while bombing Yemen and Pakistan into the stone age. Nixon was brought down by a trivial political espionage scandal. Today, when Obama reviews his “baseball cards” and decides whom to assassinate—excuse me, “targetted killings”, without due process, without appeal, often as not without even any proper evidence, all on the mere suspicion of being a “terrorist”—Americans don’t say a thing. Indeed, they approve. After all, this despicable President, who decides on whom to murder every Tuesday—like clockwork—got re-elected. Comfortably.
So this is how America slides into a fascist police-state: On a wave of approval, led by a murderer. And those arrogant, ignorant, narcissistic, safety-paranoids—excuse me, I meant to say “Americans”—who are so in love with all this righteous killing: Will they approve when those due process-free assassinations on foreign soil start turning into due process-free assassinations on American soil?
And if they don’t approve, will they be able to resist?
I don’t think so.
There are only two things left to do: Leave, or fight to turn back the slide.
Me? I see no point in fighting this state of affairs. America is a democracy—to resist the majority in a democracy is useless. The people of America have chosen this path. The majority of Americans—each and every individual who makes up this majority—has lost his/her moral compass: They all think that this state of affairs is genuinely good, or else they are indifferent to what is happening, and blind to the eventual consequences. So to resist the slide into police-state fascism is pointless at best, dangerous at the median, and outright deadly at worst. After all, for resisting this slide to police-state fascism, you or I could be accused of being a terrorist, or harboring terrorist sympathies, or terrorist thoughts—and thus lose our most basic rights as human beings.
So I made my choice: I left.
By choice, I have not lived in the United States in over a decade—but even after all these years, I am unquestionably American in my cultural touchstones and preoccupations. I still care deeply—care to distraction—about America, which is why I’m writing this piece. Which is why I am so angry—so enraged—when I learn of the further horrors committed by the government “of the people, by the people, for the people”.
I don’t care about America because of some cheap-and-easy nostalgia triggered by some pre-school ditties—it’s the other way around: My memories and imagination latched on to “Schoolhouse Rock” because I have chosen to believe in the ideals of America—or rather, chosen to believe in the Platonic ideal of what America is supposed to be, based on the principles that created it in the first place: The Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
I believe—in my bones—in the ideal of a self-policing government whose primary function is to care for and defend the essential freedoms of the people. A government subordinate to the people. I believe in the separation of powers, I believe in the system of checks-and-balances—James Madison is my intellectual hero, my main man, because he thought as I do: That a government ought to fear the people, and ought to do anything to comply with them.
Further, I believe that every man and woman is born free, and is free to either rise or fall on their own merits. I do not believe in granting anyone birth-based privilege: Be they born rich or poor or of any race, I believe that only work should determine opportunity and success.
And so naturally, my memory reaches out across the bank of my experiences and latches on to those moments that neatly click with my rational, intellectual ideals.
So it’s no surprise I can sing “The Preamble” in its entirety: It’s not because I’m so fond of these trivial little ditties. I can sing “The Preamble” because I believe in the ideal of America.
But that ideal is today unreachable. The America that exists today is such a perversion of those ideals that it makes me recoil in horror. And not just horror: It frightens me—it makes me fear that something awful might happen to me. As if America were not a rational place where truth and decency win out—but rather, an unpredictable monster, slow and black and covered in glistening slime, whose enormous jaws might just snap open wide—without warning—on a mere whim—and swallow me whole.
It does that sometimes. Often enough to be more than just some random exception.
The America of my childhood is very much dead. It has become the perversion and the decay of everything I was brought up to believe. All that remains is this Zombie America—and I hate it almost as much as I fear it. Which is why I will likely never set foot again on the ruin that is now the country that I used to love.