I don’t buy it. I don’t believe that the polls are correct about the neck-and-neck nature of the presidential race. Rather, I think we’re in the grip of the massive collective idea that we are a divided nation, evenly divided, perfectly divided, poised. How elegant, beautiful.
This idea is too overpowering, too alluring, for anyone to imagine anything else, or want to imagine anything else, since nothing could be easier. We can simply say, “we are a divided nation.” This explains anything we want it to explain. It doesn’t matter if we’re actually polarized evenly: we can organize our thoughts and opinions around this. Just like all the other controlling images of our society, nothing you couldn’t outline with an 8-color box of crayons.
What sort of thing usually breaks blinding obsessions? I mean, apart from the whale dragging the Pequod down completely? Because whatever does, we need one now.
Of course, I thought Abu Ghraib was it: an unambiguous sign that we had lost all the global support of September 12th; that we had utterly forgotten how 9/11 was a crime against humanity not just against Americans; that we had embraced the ideology of our enemies and become them; that we were drifting aimlessly in a moral vacuum, casual violence the only vocabulary still retaining any sort of value.
But while I am still reeling in despair from those photos and their nauseating ramifications, no one “out there” seems to remember. The new anchors aren’t weeping with horror and shame each evening from their carpeted soundstages. No one is overturning cars and setting fire to the business districts. No one is marching on Washington and raging incoherently into the correspondents’ cameras. Not, at any rate, any significant proportion of the population. Certainly not exactly half the country.
And I’m not either, so which side am I on, really?
What can all this mean?
One thought is that we secretly believe we deserve it, that we deserve the hatred, the chanting mobs and car bombs, that it’s about time someone scolded us.
Another thought is that we welcome any sign of evil and destruction as evidence for our hard dualism. If we saw no evil in the world, our particular notion of good would cease to exist in any meaningful way. So we let evil persist (not like smallpox in a laboratory fridge, but like disgruntled servants downstairs).
The last thought, the one that stays with me when the abstractions fall away, is that we are simply a glib pack self-absorbed morons who honestly can’t grasp anything more complex than the vague totalitarian rituals of reality television, that our preoccupation with good and evil are just spiritualized versions of an instinctive consumer’s notions of good and bad: good fiber, bad carbs; good savings, bad credit.
We strutted around, pontificating on the divine concept of “liberty,” and we were bluffing. The terrorists called our bluff: we don’t give a shit about liberty. We want the lights to go on when we flip the switch in the den; we want hot water in the taps; we want fresh milk on the shelves; we want six hundred cable channels. And if that means that some of us have to be held without trial in military bases, then so be it.
We are well-fed and we are bored. Someone told us that the nuances don’t matter and we believed them. We are domesticated animals. Not one half of us, not the other half. All of us.