In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, John Fogerty of the terrific (if weather-mad) band Creedence Clearwater Revival recalled “feeling this shame just sweep over me…I was terribly ashamed of our country.”
He needn’t have been, as he soon realized. For Richard Nixon was “not my country. He’s those guys–over in Washington. First thing I thought about was the Grand Canyon and my friends and neighbors–and the people all across the country. The people in power aren’t my country any more than a bunch of gangsters are my country.”
Nor is the Fortunate Son in his fortified bunker on Pennsylvania Avenue my country–or your country, either, unless you are as thin and insubstantial as one of those vapid wraiths hissing of empire on CNN or MSNBC or any of the other alphabetical collisions in our corporate-media soup.
There are two Americas: the televised America, known and hated by the world, and the rest of us. The former is a factitious creation whose strange gods include “Sex and the City,” accentless TV anchorpeople, Dick Cheney, Rosie O’Donnell, “Friends,” and the Department of Homeland Security. It is real enough–cross it and you’ll learn more than you want to know about weapons of mass destruction–but it has no heart, no soul, no connection to the thousand and one real Americas that produced Zora Neale Hurston and Jack Kerouac and Saint Dorothy Day and the Mighty Casey who has struck out.
I am of the other America, the unseen America, the America undreamt of by the foreigners who hate my country without knowing a single thing about it. Ours is a land of volunteer fire departments, of baseball, of wizened spinsters who instead of sitting around whining about their goddamned osteoporosis write and self-publish books on the histories of their little towns, of the farmwives and grain merchants and parsons and drunkards who made their places live.
We are the America that suffers in wartime: we do the dying, the paying of taxes, we supply the million unfortunate sons (and now daughters) who are sent hither and yon in what amounts to a vast government uprooting of the populace. Militarism and empire are the enemies of small-town America, not only because some native sons come home in bodybags but also for the desolating fact that many never come home at all. They are scattered to the winds, sent out–by force or enticement of state–in the great American diaspora, never to return to the places that gave them nurture.
War kills the provinces. It drains them of cultural life as surely as it takes the lives of 18-year-old boys. Almost every healthy, vigorous cultural current of the 1930s, from the flowering of Iowa poetry to North Dakota cornhusking tournaments to the renaissance of Upstate New York fiction, was terminated by U.S. entry into the Second World War. Vietnam, like any drawn-out war or occupation, disrupted normal courtship patterns on the homefront: the difference between republic and empire might be restated as the difference between taking the girl next door to the Sadie Hawkins Dance and paying a Saigon whore in chocolate bars and the Yankee dollar.
Empire focuses our attention on matters distant and remote, affairs to which we are mere spectators. You can care about your backyard or Baghdad; you can’t tend to both. Under empire, Madonna replaces our mothers, imperial fantasies straight out of Henry Luce’s LIFE erase our lower-case lives, and the wolf at the door is named Blitzer. Only he’s not at our door–our doors are too insignificant for such a ravening creature–but on the idiot boxes that broadcast without cease the propaganda of the regime. Facile contemners of President Bush deride him as a “Texas cowboy.” If only he were. Alas, President of the World Bush is a deracinated preppie, an Andover yell leader who blamed his first defeat for public office, in a 1978 congressional race, on “provincialism.” It seems that the real cowboys were unimpressed by a naughty boarding-school cheerleader who was unable to pronounce correctly the name of the largest city in the district. Young Bush’s helpmate, Vice President Cheney of Haliburton, is a man so placeless that once he humbly determined himself to be the most qualified running mate Mr. Bush might have, he had to hop a plane to Wyoming and become an instant citizen of the Equality State so as to avoid violating the pettifogging constitutional clause that effectively prevents President and Vice President from being residents of the same state. Bush and Cheney have no similar constitutional scruples when it comes to honoring Article 1, Section 8 of that forgotten document, which reserves to Congress the right to declare war, but then such hairsplitting is for epicene liberals, not big draft-dodging he-men like George and Dick.
So no, I do not feel “ashamed” of my country, for America, as John Fogerty understood, is not Bush or Cheney or Lieberman or Kerry but my friends, my neighbors, and yes, the Grand Canyon, too. Even better, it is the little canyon and the rude stream and Tom Sawyer’s cave and all those places whose names we know, whose myths we have memorized, and whose existence remains quite beyond the ken of the Department of Homeland Security.
Will Rogers, an American of the old school, once said, “America has a great habit of always talking about protecting American Interests in some foreign country. Protect ’em here at Home! There is more American Interests right here than anywhere.”
The Men in Grey who rule the televised America won’t protect American interests because they have no interest in America. It’s up to us provincials. What’s it gonna be, fellow hicks: serve the empire or preserve the street where you live?
BILL KAUFFMAN’s “Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small Town’s Fight to Survive” has just been published by Henry Holt. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org