20 February 2009

Excerpts From A Letter By An Unnamed Soldier Who Is Currently Serving

by Anonymous

"Man, I don't know if it's worth it for any of us to be here."

"This place and people are so different, man. The personality of the people in this part of the world was so permanently destroyed by the invasions of Genghis Kahn a thousand years ago. Those invasions were so violent, so devastating that the people learned to consolidate themselves into the groups that mattered most –families, clans, and tribes–and to hate and fear everyone else."

"These people have a thousand years of this culture--Mongol, Hindu, Arab, British, Soviet, and now U.S. invasions--and, for the most part, your average citizen of Central Asia wants no part in change."

"On the other hand, because of September 11th, the U.S. government will never allow another Taliban type government to take hold here, which is probably a legitimate goal."

"2500 years ago a low level officer in Alexander the Great's army stood here and just wanted to go home, 25 years ago a low level officer in the Soviet army stood here and just wanted to go home, it's my turn now to do what I'm here to do and miss those I left behind."

"Everything we do here that has anything to do with combat or the taking of people's lives is so detached from me."

"You can only hope it's the right thing, man–that the people at the other end really are 'bad' people. From everything I have been taught 'they' most certainly are– but from everything they've been taught I'm some ignoble Christian crusader here to rape and conquer."

"It's obscene that I go...to participate in the death of other human beings, then come back to watch 'The Office' on my portable DVD player. It could drive me crazy if I really thought about it–which I don't do too often."

"My biggest stresses, by far, are when the network is down or when someone is on the phone longer than 15 minutes and I want to call home. That's my war, man."

26 January 2009

Live from Tehran


by Soheyl Dahi

[Half memoir, half portraiture and we here at ATKE are damn proud to run this compelling glimpse into your typical autumn in Iran. The swirling fever-pitch of rhetoric in re: invasion, nuclear proliferation, and undecipherable U.S policy in the shifting sands of the Middle East; part taxicab conversation, part fragile mortality, part war and consequence--all courtesy of a painter's personal, restrained, yet very prescient eye for detail. A piece that–as with Guernica and as with any great canvas–makes its scene from wondrous, eye-opening lines and angles. –Eds.]

"Where are Their Guernicas?"

The fall in Tehran is pleasant. Very pleasant. As always, the horrendous traffic defies logic and the smog overpowers the landscape to the point that, some days, the Damavand summit is not visible. But there are days one can easily mistake for spring.

But this past fall in Tehran was like no other: there was talk that U.S. would invade Iran. It was on everybody's minds and tongues. Every fall in Iran also marks the annual anniversary of the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Iranians observe the anniversary with a week known as 'the Holy Defense Week'. The week consists of parades, films, plays and debate about the Iran-Iraq war and this year the Iranian media was especially intense and heated. As the week proceeded the discussions took on a new direction and a life of its own. The issue: the nuclear proliferation. For Iranians the issue is one of security and national pride. Iranians resented the U.S. employing yet another strong-arm approach in the Middle-East regarding Iran's nuclear program. They were more receptive, but still suspicious, of Europeans' gentler approach through diplomacy. Indeed, people were talking. This issue became a unifying force between ordinary Iranians and their government – two parties that often do not see eye to eye.

I met many people in Iran during my stay and something one learns quickly about Iranians is they are never short of opinions. This makes them interesting but also makes them subscriber to all sorts of conspiracy theories. But, as they say, a paranoid is a person with too many facts at his disposal! It is hard to remain level-headed when living in a country where U.S. troops are stationed on each side (Afghanistan and Iraq) - not to mention the U.S. troops permanently stationed in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar (Iran's southern neighbors in the Persian Gulf region).

My principal reason to visit Iran this time was a personal one. My father passed away few months earlier and I went back to pay my respects at his grave. Within days of my arrival, I made arrangement to have a cab driver pick me up early one morning and drive me to Beheshet-e-Zahra (Zahra's Paradise), the largest cemetery in Tehran. Here are the accounts of my encounters:

Cabbie #1: Mehdi

Mehdi is a young man in his 20's. He is clean-shaven and wears a fashionable short-sleeved polo shirt. He wants to know why I am going to Beheshet-e-Zahra. He offers me his condolences. Our conversation began with why he drives a cab. He had failed the university entrance exam three times and finally gave up on higher education in Iran. He still dreamed of pursuing an engineering degree somewhere else – Australia, or Canada maybe–but after 9/11, he gave up on coming to U.S. He later tells me he learned English from satellite TV. Satellite TV is officially banned in Iran but despite that, Iranians continue to enjoy TV programs from all over the world. Mehdi watches Oprah ("Why is she so popular?"), Larry King ("what's with the suspenders?"), is a fan of 'Friends' ('they are all very attractive') broadcast on European stations, and is a regular in various chat rooms on the internet.

The more we talk, the more I suspect that he has no desire to talk about the 'Holy Defense Week.' He is, instead, very eager to tell me about two songs by Pink Floyd ex-front man, Roger Waters; posted on his website and available free to the public. Mehdi says he has heard the songs probably a hundred times. "He is telling our story," Mehdi tells me. He particularly loves the personal attack on George Bush in one of the songs. He laughs hard and hits the steering wheel as he sings along in his delightful accent – not unlike mine:

Are these the people that we should bomb
Are we so sure they mean us harm
Is this our pleasure, punishment or crime
Is this a mountain that we really want to climb*

The sun was barely up when we arrived at the cemetery. The rays were made a wondrous golden glow on the white marble of the headstones. We found my father's grave among the rows and rows of graves, him walking along with me, bending over the grave and saying a short prayer. He then walked away to give me a private moment with my father.

As we drove back through the sections upon sections, and rows after rows of graves, Mehdi asked if I'd like to see the Shahids (Martyrs) section of the cemetery. When the word shahid is uttered in Iran, it is refers to the victims of the eight-year war with Iraq–a war that left thousands dead, and many more dying–after effects of the chemical war Saddam Hussein waged against Iranians and Kurdish-Iraqis.

As Mehdi parked the car he said, "We'll walk from here." Rows and rows of men–boys really – with fresh faces and attempted moustaches seen in the photographs posted on each grave. Strange thoughts go through my head. These boys, what were they thinking at the time the photographs were taken? Could they have imagined their own mortality? Did they know that their days on this earth were numbered? From all accounts, many did know. Many lied about their age so they could get in the army. Many volunteered for the front lines.

'I lost one cousin in the war, but another cousin survived' Mehdi said. "He was a Basiji (Volunteer Army). He is the 'chemical one','' Mehdi says.

"Chemical one"' I asked.

"Yes, he was a victim of chemical attack during the war."

"Where is he now?"

"He is around," Mehdi says shrugging his shoulders. "But he is not very fond me. He thinks I'm too corrupt. He tells me 'you're too much in love with the West.'"

"Can I meet him?"

"I'll try" he said.

Dr. Kazem: 'The Chemical One'

Few days later, Mehdi called. Dr. Kazem, his ex-Basiji cousin, much to Mehdi's surprise, wanted to talk to me directly...by phone first. I agreed and we made contact. He was suspicious of me but nevertheless agreed to meet briefly and without any commitment to talk. He was not surprised in the least that I wanted to interview him. Apparently, over the years, he has had his share of interviews – and most, to his great disappointment, during the 'Holy Defense Week'.

We met over coffee at a local café downtown. He was medium height, with full black hair and beard, wearing a long-sleeved white shirt fully buttoned-up. For openers, we talked about his cousin Mehdi. "Mehdi is a good boy with a good heart," Dr. Kazem said, "but he is lost..." Dr. Kazem, a PH.D. in comparative literature, slowly warmed to me--despite probably not having a very favorable view of someone like me (who lives in the West). Yet, he defied stereotype, and was cordial and even friendly toward me.

Dr. Kazem volunteered for the war when he was 15 against his parents' wishes. He ran away from home, lied about his age, and joined the all volunteer army (Basijis). Once inside, he once again volunteered for the front lines. He is full of memories and anecdotes. He fought the Iraqis for 5 years until that fateful day in Halabja when he got caught in a chemical attack along with over 5000 Kurdish-Iraqi civilians of Halabja who instantly perished. "The rocket landed few feet from me. Almost immediately I smelled garlic, onion and fresh vegetables. Before I realized what had happened, I had breathed in a few times. I put on my mask as soon as I could and ran as fast as humanly possible. Back in our barracks, I took a shower and thought I'd be fine but soon I began to itch all over. I had breathed in mustard gas. My entire body was covered with blisters, some the size of a small frying pan. When I pressed on them, a greenish liquid came out. This was the damage that was visible. Inside, I learned later, about 40% of my lungs were destroyed. Still, I was among the fortunate ones because I eventually recovered. Today, sometimes, I need an oxygen tank to help me breathe and on bad days I cough blood. That's all, really."

"On your bad days, how do you feel about your experience?' I asked him.

"I think I know what you are asking me. You want to know whether I have any regrets or not. I can tell you that I have none. If U.S. attacks us today, I'll pick up arms again and fight," he says without missing a beat.

Cabbie #2: Reza, the Journalist

I met Reza by chance after another cabbie changed his mind and decided he was not going my way after all. I got out and soon found Reza's cab. Reza, it turned out, was a journalist. Ex-journalist. His early career was spent as a gofer at a major daily newspaper in pre-revolutionary Iran. Reza is a proud reformist. His last job at a reformist paper was his third job in the past two years. All three papers were closed down by the government for 'a variety of trumped up charges'. Finally the revolutionary court banned him for life from practicing journalism and he became a cab driver to make ends meet. Reza's first passion is journalism of course but he also has a keen interest in literature – modern American literature to be exact. He has read 'On the Road' and admires Kerouac's sense of freedom in his story and style. I happened to have the perfect gift for him in my briefcase: A signed copy of 'Front Lines' (published by City Lights) by San Francisco's poet laureate Jack Hirschman. The gift was intended for another friend but Reza seemed equally deserving. Reza was genuinely pleased with the gift.

"Hirschman and Ferlinghetti are great poets. What are they up to? Still alive?" I assure him that indeed they are and they are more active than ever. "But what are they doing against the invasion of Iraq?" he asks.

"They are writing, reading, dissenting and giving a voice to millions of Americans who are also against this invasion," I say.

"Good," he says, "but what about the others? Where are the American artists? Where are their Guernicas? Why are they all silent when Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are happening? Where is the outrage?"

I do not have an answer for him.

Reza and many others like him are in a precarious position these days: they are trying to reform the political system from within, liberalizing a regime that is quick to brand them 'pro-U.S.' – a label that has become a kiss of death in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Reza is hopeful. But he also warns of the dire consequences if U.S. decides to invade another Arab or a non-Arab but predominantly Moslem country like Iran.

"Nobody here believes U.S. wants to give us democracy–as if we were beggars and democracy was a morsel of food!" he says. "They want three things from us: Oil, oil and oil! If they attack I will have to defend my country," he says as he shifts into fourth gear.

Cabbie #3 Jamal, the ex-guard

I got into his car for all the wrong reasons. His car was filthy. He looked unshaven, unkempt and beat. I pitied him and thought maybe he needed the business more the other cabbies. His name was Jamal and all I said to him was "How's life these days?" and he went off for the rest of the ride. It turned out that he was in Shah's guard before the revolution of 1979. He told me how good he had it.

"Sir, we had vacation pay, clothes stipend, health insurance, food subsidies. I was a homeowner, can you believe that? Now, I can't even afford to pay rent. I work 16 hours a day. If my car dies on me, I'll die too. Yes Sir, life is hard in Iran, life is very hard."

"What do you think of the United States? I asked him.

"We had American advisors and trainers in Shah's time. We all liked them. They were good people. Some of them cried when they were forced to leave Iran because of the revolution."

"Do you follow the news these days?"

"Yes, I have a shortwave radio. I am against the invasion. The U.S. doesn't understand Moslems. If Iraq is not their Vietnam, Iran will be. Sir, I listen to radio Israel and sometimes to the BBC."

"Radio Israel?" I asked incredulously.

"Yes, Sir," he replied. "Radio Israel has a Farsi program; they play the best pop songs of pre-revolution–now banned in Iran. I don't care about politics anymore. I just want to survive. Music takes me back to the good old days. I know they're gone forever. But still, I need it. I don't have anything else to keep me going."

He dropped me off at my door. We shook hands. Then, he took off in his cab - clanking and clunking. I stood there until he made the turn and disappeared in the traffic of Tehran.

The following day I was gone too.

Iranian-born poet and artist Soheyl Dahi lives in San Francisco.

* Leaving Beirut © Roger Waters

* Guernica by Pablo Picasso

23 January 2009

A Moment of Possibility

The noonday sun shining upon the tallest obelisk in the world cast a long shadow over the millions gathered to watch it happen. Some came to confirm the departure of Dick "Dr. Strangelove" Cheney and his murderous lapdog George. Some came to dance and celebrate the first black president. Some came because they were drawn together as a tribe, as a culture, as a society to mark the moment when a mass redefinition could actually be at hand, to feel the powerful energy of such a gathering being focused and directed in a positive direction for a change, to stand for a thing instead of in opposition.

We made it.

We're exhausted, but we made it.

It's like we can finally let out a long, huge breath.

We heard Obama give the back of his hand to the ugliness and horror of torture and the Bush administration's gleeful, hideous participation in such useless cruelty. We heard him speak of putting away "childish things," and becoming aware of our place together. We heard the appropriate boos when George took his seat. We felt the rush of hope along with everyone else as Obama took the oath, and the relief that this day was actually happening.

And we here at ATKE are happy to report that all the conspiracy theorists (ourselves among them) were wrong! Despite positioning troops which would, no doubt, allow him to declare Martial Law and seize control of our democracy indefinitely...it's official: he's gone. The helicopter lifted off and the singing of "Na na goodbye" echoed across the trampled landscape of the Mall. Goodbye, you motherfucker, goodbye to your cronies, goodbye to your terror and fear, goodbye to your gilded life. Goodbye. And not a moment too soon. We are in a bad way. We are gutshot and bleeding out. Even at his final moment in power he just didn't get it. To smile, snicker, wave, glad-hand after all he's done to destroy America...he just never got it. Never will.

As we continue to survey the wreckage of the last 8 years, as we try to stem the still-onrushing tide of his disastrous policies, we look forward, look ahead, and try to figure out how to save our country. ATKE has recently reached out to a few folks we feel are uniquely positioned to offer us some insight into any number of topics, and we'll be posting new articles soon. But please don't let that stop you from submitting. As ever, our goal is to give interested and interesting small-press types an avenue (or pulpit) to traffic in ideas. Give us a mix of politics, fore-thought, and humor. Give us what you care about. Give us your loot! Give us your blood! Figuratively speaking, of course...

The Editors

21 December 2008

Not Long Now

The stars are hard and clear and bright against the vast black depths of the frozen night sky. A silence crawls over the landscape. A stillness. Everything hunkers down in burrow and den, in living room and bedroom, in cave and crevice. It is the longest night of the year and we wait for the coming of the dawn, for the return of the light, for the warmth spring brings.

We here at ATKE are no exception. We thank those who've sent in recent submissions, and we apologize for the length of time in response. We've not forgotten, we're just fighting off the cold days and nights, and our little online world has slipped into the briefest of slumbers during these waning days of 2008, the Year Everything Changed tm. But we'll be back very soon, with all new content and new voices, some new photos, a series of Interviews with The Padre and much, much more.

Stay tuned.

The Editors

05 November 2008


The editors wish to offer our deepest congratulations to America and to our new President Elect! Now...let's get to fixing everything!

To that end: send us thoughts/essays/opinion on precisely how to do it!

03 November 2008


"The imposition of a sentimental, or false, narrative on the disparate and often random experience that constitutes the life of a city or a country means, necessarily, that much of what happens in that city or country will be rendered merely illustrative, a series of set pieces, or performance opportunities."

-Joan Didion – ‘Sentimental Journeys’ from After Henry

“What campaigns peddle is not simply character but character as defined by story—a tale of opposing forces that in its telling will memorably establish what a given election is about.”
-Robert Draper - ‘The Making (and Remaking) of McCain’

“The vote is our ticket to the drama, and the politician’s quest to eradicate fill in the blank is no different from the promise of the superstar of the summer movie to subdue the villain—both promise us a diversion for the price of a ticket and a suspension of disbelief.”
-David Mamet – a footnote in ‘Letters of Transit’ from
3 Uses Of The Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama

John McCain is compelling.

Not as a potential President (god no, he's insanely ill-fit for that job…no, I'll be voting for his esteemed opponent in the upcoming), but as both a public figure and a private pariah, a man with many a heroic and tragic flaw. Also, and of course, as a train wreck. I am fascinated by John McCain, though less as a candidate than as a story; one we, as Didion might say, “tell ourselves in order to live”, as a narrative thread which might serve as some kind of American parable, fable, or even cautionary tale. But most specifically I am interested in his own story: the one he tells himself, the one not actually written about (though still inescapably alluded to) in Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir. McCain is, to my eye, like watching a Spanish bullfight; a public execution; like watching King Lear's descent into madness—engaging not as much for what has been said (which has been surreal) as much as for what is being done: every bit of it intriguing, yet—ultimately—foredoomed.

With less than a day left in his bid for the presidency, McCain is poised to fulfill the dramatic promises made by not only the singularly coherent (which is to say believable) of his campaign’s narrative threads, but that of his actual life’s story as well: and that is to lose, gloriously. To be clear, this has not been the desired outcome of any of the many, dizzying yarns McCain and his handlers have tried to sell the electorate on…no, no…this is the story they’ve unwittingly brought to its justified, dramatically-earned, and correct end—the one they’ve told instead. The exposition of this great tale was laid down generations earlier and the characterizations—both real and false—have been decades in the making. As has the deep and desperate psychology that drives the man who, even after two national campaigns, remains a stranger for the American voter—a tactic that seems, now, much less accidental. Or, rather, great efforts have been made to mask, control, spin, and bury his political and personal inadequacies; matched only by counter-efforts to fabricate, for the man, a new mythology—one based largely on explaining away the failures in his so-called defining moments, his plot points, his mistakes. Offered, instead, has been a kind of passive alibi—one dressed up as a hero’s journey. Enter: the unbelievable character sketch that McCain currently campaigns as. And make no mistake: it is unbelievable. And the polls suggest that the voters have not fallen for it, have not been fooled by the bait-and-switch, have not—despite McCain’s monumental efforts—agreed to suspend their disbelief such that, once again, McCain might be allowed to succeed in spite of himself.

To hear McCain sell it, it goes something like this: he’s a 3rd generation maverick and serious military man; his rambunctious and unapologetic past behind him, he is now a devoted family man, one unwilling to bend to the pressures (& pleasures) of others; he is the prodigal son returned “with the scars to prove it”—that is prove his individual heroism, and love of God and country.

“My grandfather was a naval aviator, my father a submariner. They were my first heroes, and earning their respect has been the most lasting ambition of my life. They have been dead many years now, yet I still aspire to live my life according to the terms of their approval.”
–John McCain, Faith of my Fathers: A Family Memoir

“My father was an intelligent man, and quite well read as a boy. The low grades as a student cannot be accredited to poor intellect. Rather, I assume they were attributable to his poor discipline, a failing that was almost certainly a result of his immaturity and the insecurity he must have felt as an undersized youth in a rough-and-tumble world that had humbled many older, bigger men.”
–John McCain, Faith of my Fathers: A Family Memoir

As defined by his forefathers, John McCain is a study in contradictions—most specifically in his reportedly lifelong roles. In many ways he is a man just like his father and grandfather—only not, in neither their eyes nor his own, as great. In the aforementioned quotes we find John McCain talking about and admitting to things not of his forefathers’ lives but his own—accidental admissions, I’d say. These are the stories he uses to explain away both his and his forefathers’ imperfections. It is also how he positions himself among their ranks. Some of these things might be true, and I have no doubt that McCain believes most (if not all) of them are. But the fact that his story has been so retroactively constructed, that he is so utterly convinced by the story as to doggedly stick to it even as it, as a political tactic, fails him, suggests something a little more pathological at work. True or not true, McCain needs this story to be his story. And even if this is his story—it’s certainly not his whole story.

I have only the vaguest recollections of McCain's campaign in 2000: what I do remember is liking him; thinking he was a reasonable, & forthcoming potential candidate; thinking that he was far more experienced, & frankly, a vastly superior candidate—one much better suited to the nomination. I also remember watching the GOP brutally cannibalize one of it's own, one of its most loyal (if not a little naïve), in favor of George W. Bush and his disturbing, win-at-all-costs brand of politics. It was not only ugly but felt downright wrong. Crucify Clinton, Gore sure…but one of its own, and a war hero? It set a terrifying and unnatural precedent. In fact, Bush’s brand of politics highlighted exactly why McCain was—in my mind—the better of the two: McCain ran a pretty decent and honorable campaign.

Little did we know that 2000 would be an ugly glimpse into what would come to be known as “politics as usual” in the next 8 years—the eventual cost still too impossible to measure. As a result, America has been a nation divided: by Republican action; by Democratic inaction—a division deeper than we still yet know. To see, in 2008's campaign, such a vastly different man than the one I remember from 2000 has been more than a little alarming. And I cannot be the only one who feels that turning, in 2008, to the very people who so publicly destroyed him is more than a little unnerving. After all, we know it affected him. He strongly considered jumping ship and joining the Democratic party afterwards—something that could at least partially be attributed to that cannibalization he endured. So at what cost…at what cost goes loyalty? Yes, politics (& college football) makes for strange bedfellows—sure, sure. But to willingly ally himself with such political hypocrisy has all but proven that, despite all punditry to the contrary, he cares for only one thing: winning. Though McCain seems to tell himself a wholly different yarn.


“The other adviser was 53-year-old Mark Salter, a brilliant, pugnacious writer who has composed all of McCain’s books and major speeches and in a more encompassing sense is McCain’s definer, looking after what Salter himself calls the ‘metanarrative’ of McCain’s transformation from reckless flyboy and P.O.W. to courageous patriot.”
-Robert Draper - ‘The Making (and Remaking) of McCain’

“The search for witches, Jews, un-Americans, homosexuals, immigrants, Catholics, heretics is, similarly, a pageant and not really a political quest at all. The prime movers elect themselves the protagonists, identify what is causing all that unfortunate uncertainty in the world, and swear to expunge it, if we will just vote for them.”
-David Mamet - from ‘Letters of Transit’,
3 Uses Of The Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama

As defined by his adviser and ghost-autobiographer Mark Salter, and under the guidance of Rick Davis, and Steve Schmidt, McCain has—as we have witnessed—run a campaign based largely on fear. A campaign that is designed to whip up the most extreme factions of his base into a near-frenzy and destined to reach deep into voters’ most secret prejudices and needle them. To generalize, his base is affluent—which is to say those most susceptible to the tactic of fear: they are, simply, comfortable people with the most to lose. To generalize, his base is middle-class—which is to say proud and willing to sacrifice for some higher ideals, something familiar and historical, something beyond itself. And to generalize again, his base is poor—which is to say ignored and forgotten, and often most susceptible to each and every pillow-talk promise, most willing to vote not their present circumstances but their glorious (and highly unlikely) futures…vote for those brighter days ahead when their American Dream finally gets it’s lotto-ticket punched. McCain’s 2008 campaign has been based on reckless gambles, talking-point horses beaten beyond even recognition, illustrative set pieces, and performance opportunities—yarns packed to the gills with platitudes and world-weary tales of the hard-working everyman…as well as the standard witch hunts, un-Americans, and even heretics. It’s been a campaign aimed at anti-intellectualism, one that smirks at his opponent's eloquence…as if the substance of what was being said is of no consequence. And in that regard, it has been a successful campaign: it has found those it most sought and engaged them. Additionally it has also found those less-civic in their support, found those less concerned with America’s future as with America’s inglorious past…as sometimes embarrassingly and heartbreakingly evidenced by hand-scrawled signs reading "Mavrik," "Half-Breed Muslin" & "Socialiest" strewn across the distended underbelly of the American heartland.

It is called a tragic flaw because it is unavoidable, impending…because the flawed simply cannot help themselves. We've all watched as McCain simply could not help himself…even despite his valiant efforts. The schizophrenic mania manifest in clenched teeth, in physical ticks, in such restrained and barely-held-in-check tongue-jabs and emotions have pushed the man to his physical limit, if not into the white-hot glare of truth for all that it is hidden and that his body-language appears to betray. To hear the man say something like "My friends, I know we're all hurting," while not knowing how many houses he officially owns (much less unofficially) certainly doesn't ingratiate him to the less red of the blue collar set…those the Republican platform must, every election cycle, convince to vote against their own better futures and self-interests in support of the lavish, boundless lifestyle of the upper class. And it is in these so painfully obvious conflicts of interest that the campaign loses traction, where it becomes a comic sketch of itself…yet another annoyance in a campaign of annoyances, trivialities, dull and insipid little errands, chores—all these speeches and smart-ass debates—something simply to be gotten through between now and his magnificently imagined reign. Yes, those pesky, infuriatingly slow-churning wheels of democracy.

Absent from the hero’s journey—if we’re to believe that is what we are being sold—are the less glorious, more humanizing moments: owning mistakes; meaningful admonitions; confessing of one’s sins and transgressions by which the hero can learn to forgive himself…just as we, the audience, forgive him. Noticeably absent. Nearly non-existent. But from the ether-eye, from sources, from un-silent patriots come disturbing, un-heroic dispatches from the supposed front lines of McCain’s psyche…things that do not jive with the official narrative. Rage. Infidelity. Ruthless, quenchless ambition. A hard-charging drunkard with a thirst for dice. A brat insulted by his advantages, but not enough to refuse to abuse them. Misogyny. The word “cunt.” These are separate, unofficial narratives…witnessed reports, yet stories without redaction, stories the merits of which I am neither qualified nor inclined to debate. These are stories McCain apparently refuses to dignify with response (we’ll ignore the argument that perhaps, just perhaps, the electorate might be entitled to it). But that they are is what bears mentioning—leave the exposés to those better suited—what further clouds the tangled threads of his narrative. I have no doubt that politics is a rough business, that every misstep is mercilessly amplified in an election year and especially in this election year. I have no doubt that running for President of the United States is immeasurably difficult. But so is maintaining a crumbling façade.


“And we vote for, and follow with interest, that political hero who dramatizes our lives and relieves, for a while, the feeling of hopelessness and anomie that is the stuff of modern civilization.”
-David Mamet - from ‘Letters of Transit’,
3 Uses Of The Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama

Yes, but what is the story McCain prefers? It seems a failed hero’s tale wherein he, in 2008, has little choice. Ignore the base and he risks alienating the Christian right—and his campaign wouldn't have a leg to stand on. Or so he seems resigned to think. But, tactically, what of courting to this base? Is that even sane when facing an opponent decades your inferior in terms of experience, not to mention being the first-ever African American major party Presidential candidate? Wasn't simply being the Republican nominee probably going to, to put it simply, be enough? Did McCain honestly think that the Republican base would ever consider voting for what they would no doubt see as a weak, tax-and-spend, faggoty, tree-hugging, liberal terrorist—even if he wasn’t black? Or was it just desperately begging the lost affections of 2000, the unrealized ousting of Bush in 2004, instead of appealing to today’s much more broad and contemporary voting set?

In many ways I think McCain should have been himself, the McCain of 2000, instead of this straw man, dreamed up by the GOP machine. He has sacrificed his own heart for a shot at the White House, and has done so, I think, to great personal detriment. The disjointed tactics, the grumblings from his inconsistent, divided camp, seem largely those of a blood-thirsty mob being just barely (if not inadequately) restrained…not much of a legacy. Watching it unfold has suggested, to me, a kind of crisis of conscience for McCain. At least I want to believe it has. It also has suggested regret of his many errant decisions…including turning to the very gnashing teeth of a combine that devoured him 8 years ago. Yes, had McCain run simply as himself and were he to lose, at least it would rest solely on him, on his hero's shoulders…instead of easily justified or explained away by consequence and ill-fate. Yes, better the loss be attributed to his volatile and barely suppressed rage, to his failed policies, his poor decisions, his underestimation of voters, or his lack of vision and understanding. At least, then, his worth as a civil servant and a man would not be in question. That would, I think, be easier to take. After all, who is to blame when the very same meritocracy upon which all your deepest beliefs are centered somehow has you losing the big game?

But he has not been himself—which is to say the earlier versions of himself, the story of John McCain that I prefer to ascribe to, the one I choose and believe is more representative of the actual man. I watched at rallies, him standing idly by, while extreme supporters called for the literal head of his opponent. I fully expected him to do something about it, and believe the McCain of 2000 would have. But to see him this time—looking around, smiling uncomfortably, turning to an unseen someone looking for guidance, for help—made me wonder if he even had anything left, anything that could be saved. I see, in McCain, an angry, sad, and broken man. I also see a relieved man. To openly embrace the divisive and destructive tactics that the same GOP machine used to derail his more honorable and very legitimate near-Presidential campaign, the Straight Talk Express, …to see him devolve into someone else, one who would reverse himself so drastically on his pet projects, including immigration and the moral issue of torture (for which even the ugliest Rove-ean political opportunist would have still given him a pass) suggests a deep, pathological need to win. Beyond talk. Beyond promises. Beyond American futures. Beyond pledges and the slaughter of political mischaracterization visited on him by those he now begs to destroy his opponent. He seems cursed to view all his failures not in the eyes of himself (by which he could learn from them) but in those of his dead forefathers…haunted by men he (and others) have lionized into some kind of ideal, some cheapjack Greek gods, men McCain has always wanted to equal and—let's be honest—always wanted to finally best…at something…somehow. For my money, that is what has made him so desperate, so willing to be someone he was not. Perhaps the end, once again, justified the means…as it almost never has before. Or always has, depending on who you ask. And as his deep-seated need to win runs headlong into his impending failure, he is forgetting his own story and forgetting to beware the dramatic promises a narrative makes—as expectations are planned resentments.

I see in McCain the facts of himself, as his story has been retroactively constructed: the narrative yarn that is, to him, so utterly convincing as to doggedly adhere almost exclusively to it—even as it, as a political tactic, fails him. Yes, a man transformed by his life’s darkest hours from a reckless, impetuous youth to a measured man of God and country first. He has ignored the rest. Worse is that even in telling himself the story he needs most believe, telling himself the story of himself, he’s done so not with war stories as one might expect. And they are not tales where he's overcome some great challenge internal or obstacle external. Sadly, while those threads do occasionally work into the larger narrative, the stories McCain tells himself, the roles in which he prefers to cast himself, are the stories not of heroes but of martyrs: of those who—instead of doing something, anything—are simply people to which unfortunate and treacherous things like fate, time, and circumstance just seem to happen; stories not of a tortured yet still determined, murderous Hamlet but, instead, of a broken, bewildered old fool Lear; not so much the prodigal son returned 'with the scars to prove it' as that of a silver-spooned Jesus whose crucifixion wasn't even enough to finally win his dead grandfather's or father’s love.

And it must be asked: does the man even want to be President? Reaching now (and perhaps it’s psycho-babble), but what other choice does a man born to the purple, born to every advantage have—save self-sabotage and wanton tales of martyrdom—to explain away his failures? What else does a man born to every advantage have—save self-sabotage—by which he can finally reject his pathological and desperately failed attempts to measure up? McCain somehow needs to be both hero and victim, both winner and loser, both magnanimous martyr and stone-faced executioner. He needs an escape hatch, a hedged bet, some back-door-extraction from yet another of his life’s untenable psychological situations. He needs it to be okay to succeed, sure. But he needs it to be even more okay to fail. How else are we to explain away Sarah Palin—when the GOP is rife with far more loyal, knowledgeable, capable, & inspired choices? That even Lear needed his fool? Surely McCain cannot have such little regard for the intellect of the American electorate, can he? I see in him—as all great martyrs—a deep sadness, an unreachable place, one that joy cannot find. I think he knows it. And I think he knows that winning this election will not make it go away. And while I have no doubt the man is haunted by some pathological need to best his grandfather and his father in some way, to become something they were not such that the lifelong comparisons might finally cease, and the whispers of his own unhappy heart might be silenced—I think there is a large part of him that does not want to win, one that is content to appear as if he fought tooth and nail but was, ultimately, bested by a man better-suited, and more beloved of the people—or—one with more nefarious crooks and cronies in his corner, and it was, once again, his honor that defeated him. It is, after all, the role he’s most comfortable playing, the story he’s most accustomed to living. And the role he has, after 70+ years, maybe even made his peace with.

I am sorry for the man. Not enough to vote for him, of course…yet sorry all the same. Such tragedy, both personal and professional, has rarely (if ever) played out to the delight of so many worldwide—and never on such grand a national and international stage.

We've all unfortunately and unwittingly borne witness.

Suggested Readings

-“Make-Believe Maverick” by Tim Dickinson, Rolling Stone Magazine
-“The Making (and Remaking) of McCain” by Robert Draper, GQ Magazine
-After Henry and The White Album (or, anything, really) by Joan Didion
-3 Uses of the Knife: On the Nature & Purpose of Drama by David Mamet

02 November 2008

That Last Small Shard

by Christopher Cunningham

The dusk approaches here in the deep south and the final glittering rays of a long day cut thru the gold and red autumn leaves left hanging on the skeletal limbs. The light scatters across the cool ground, over the collapsing garden, the overgrown grasses, the dust and dirt where the dogs rumble. We've passed thru the ugly swelter of summer and made it thru what seems like years of stale and stagnant heat and now find ourselves at the brink of something large and strange, something without real shape, without definition. We look over the edge and cannot fathom what lies beyond the edge of this weird precipice, what our future might hold. It might be a place of hope, but who can really say? Having come thru the last eight years with the shreds of our humanity and the remnants of our spirit hanging in rough tatters from our bones, we are not prepared to hazard a guess. The apparatus of the police state remains in place, the consolidated power of the executive branch remains, the rights we lost during the Bush administration have not yet been restored, the racist rhetoric from the willfully ignorant grows more and more virulent (especially the closer we get to possibly having a *gasp* Black Man in the Oval Office), the dollar continues to collapse, weak Democratic leaders are still running the show (Reid and Pelosi), droves of war criminals, thieves, zealots, con artists, perverts and psychopaths are all going to remain at large, and etc.

But here under this fading southern sun we still manage to dig deep down into the stinking muck of the last eight years under neocon/corpofascist rule and unearth one more fragment of hope for the human animal. As the grey days of winter approach, we still manage to believe that enough of us, after repeatedly smashing our fingers with a hammer and wondering why our fingers hurt so fucking much and then doing it again and again and again, will eventually stop smashing our own fingers; that at some point we must realize it is WE who are doing the smashing and WE have the power to stop it. Sure, there will always be the freak who gets off on the pain; we can never persuade such malformations of humanity that some things are TRUE and not open to debate. We can never change the minds of idiots who grin with glee as they work with endless determination to tear down the very construct of their own sad and pathetic lives, simpletons who are terrified that some OTHER is going to somehow come and steal their trailer, their Walmart card, their fifteen year old pickup truck or the seven bucks in their tattered leather wallet. And we shouldn't waste our energy trying. Ken Kesey said, "Put your good where it will do the most." That's the only way to look at things you cannot change. You can't save all the stray dogs in the world no matter how much you might wish to do so. Let em have their hammer and stay the fuck out of their way (until they wander over into your yard swinging that stupid thing; then they'll have to be dealt with in The Proper Fashion).

All we can really do is stare into that dark empty space before us and imagine a blank canvas where we can project that last spark, that last small shard of diamond dust glinting, that last drive and determination to manufacture hope out of the smoking remains of the American Dream. All we can do is be glad that we still possess the capacity for laughter, the capacity for song.

Here we allow ourselves a moment to chuckle approaching the eve of something potentially historic, on the cusp of something we cannot predict, at the birth and unfolding of a whole new era of "unknown unknowns." We allow ourselves five minutes of hope before we get back to making sure whatever good parts of humanity that are left still live on by making art, by growing as much of our own food as we can, by doing as little harm as we can, by helping each other and paying close attention to our world, to our government, to our surroundings, and by actively participating in the unfolding actuality of our lives, uncolored by delusion, unfounded opinion, mistaken patriotism, blissful ignorance or useless superstition. Here we continue to endure. We stand in those fading rays and smile in the small bit of warmth that covers us, and enjoy the feeling of possibility.

And we get ready for what is to come.