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With Friends Like These, Who Needs Canadians?

American Friends

by DAVID KER THOMSON

A friend sticketh closer than a brother, or could, is how I recall the good book summarizing our duty.  Oh my friends, there is no friend.  That’s from Aristotle, or at least that’s what several Frenchmen have told me.  More on that soon, but first—because you can never get enough, right?—some musings on Obama, this time from an expat (a person who used to have pat answers but has sworn off the habit).

Comparisons of Obama and Hitler are at least as odious as the ones so often made between Bush and Hitler or between Bush and the various dictators with which he or his father set up shop.  These comparisons are misguided because the body count for twentieth-century fascism, with which we love to believe our side had no part, was rendered in tens of millions.  This will seem paltry compared to the big die-offs in store for the industrialized world at the end of our century, when it will have been clear for a long time that the environment wasn’t an “issue” for the executive branches of the west to play with but, quite literally, all that there is or has ever been.  Thinking of the environment as an “issue” is a category mistake, a bit like mistaking homology and analogy.  The world isn’t like a vehicle (rowboat, spaceship) but is one. 

Indeed, the big die-off has already been happening in poor countries, with 40,000 children winking quietly out per day.  I say quietly because there hasn’t been any kafuffle about the dying children in, say, my own “progressive” neighborhood, but there is joy everywhere here in the fifty-first state that we now have a black man to whom we can surrender the executive function of our own brains. 

Fetishize the complexion of the new boss up in the big white house all you want, but the fact is that his commitment (i.e. your commitment, oh my friends) not only to keeping black males in the increasingly profitable prison complex but to keeping the embers of empire stoked—bigger war in Afghanistan, permanent occupation in Iraq, more troops all round so that business can keep killing the world’s children as usual, is murder that is systemic but not generally systematic, as there is little incentive to keep incriminating records about the slaughter.  What isn’t quite understood yet is the scale of the attack, including here at home.  Our intuition tells us that if we’ve ever known someone who had cancer we might begin to see how this is hitting home, but the science will necessarily lag far behind our intuition on this one, and our nuts and nipples, as Joe Bageant likes to put it, will be toast long before there’s any substantive admission from corporate science and corporate democratists that dumping poison into our environment might actually, uh, poison us.

It’s true that it gives me pause when I find my best allies in the struggle for gentle, food-rich big-tree’d car-free culturally diverse urban neighborhoods (politics without politicians, without politics altogether) all have names like ambi and feral faun, spelled without caps, and that every tenth one of them, like some sort of sick tithe, is a federal agent posing as Bambi.  For backup, these decimating federally fawning infiltraitors are ready to invoke (in case you say something interesting like, “that ski lift actually looks better after it was burned than before”) the full lock-and-load armoire, excuse my French, of the free world.  Excuse some more French: the word enfranchise is from Old French, en franc, to make frank, i.e., to make you into a French land-owning male, i.e., to make you free.  Frank = free.  Frankly, this puts the liberté back into the liberty fries at your local McDonald’s franchise the way Walmart puts the egalité into Chinese labor practice.  Bon appetite.   

Now where was I?, as the French philosopher said.  Oh yeah, I was talking about fraternité, and how my best friends love Ugg boots, as the poet Sylvia Plath almost put it.  My best friends having decamped for the big house, this leaves me back with my old best friends, whom I might have glimpsed lurking on the next ridge back in the day and who are now the fauna occasionally to be glimpsed with some nicely poised cyberflora covering their private parts.  It sucks.  All ee all ee in come free, as we used to call to each other at the end of hide-and-seek.  Come be French, all you disenfranchised.  House red all round, take a load off.  Can’t we all just get along?

Not with you lot around, apparently.  Yeah, you, my boot-loving friends. 

My best friend, a Seattle midwife Buddhist wisewoman from whom I’ve learned to be me (admittedly an odd selection) has told me she won’t read my articles in CounterPunch (hence a certain liberté in this article) because she doesn’t like the “layout,” which I guess she thinks is strident or something.  She gets her information from comic books instead, I suppose, or TV. 

So, anyhoo, I’m sitting in the really cheap Ethiopan hole-in-the-wall here at the corner of Bloor and Oz with the family the other day, thinking, this is some seriously good food for eight bucks, I could almost spring for a beer.  So I’m enjoying the view, which is one of those new high-rez TV images funneled along the two mirrored walls of this little joint, and all you get is this sincere and honest-looking broadcaster’s head in mirrored triplicate against the romper-room colors of the American flag.  “I like the layout,” I say to Eva-Lynn, and I’m not joking.  I feel the pleasure of being stroked by the big box.  The medium being the massage and all. 

I’ve never seen this Obama guy in real life (i.e. on TV) but I bet if he’d come onto the screen then I’d have adored him.  I can see why my best friend would rather spend time with him than reading my stuff.  Obama and me, we both have white moms, so I feel like he can dig the white experience.  Sebastian (12) runs the specs on the TV past me, so many pixels per inch and so on, and I’m nodding my head agreeing.  Screw the content.  “Form is everything,” I say.  There are these two chicks in the corner, and I’m married, sure, but still, you can see the nipples through the tight t-shirt of the brunette.  I didn’t do it, but I dug it, if you know what I mean.  Suddenly one of the chicks kisses the other and I realize what I’m looking at with those nipples and I say to my wife, “oh, that’s disgusting.”

“What?” Eva-Lynn says.  All she can see is a few other customers, some chicks in the corner kissing, the TV.  Liam (8) is reading or boning up on his Latin or whatever mini-geeks do.  The kid failed his official “gifted” exam today on the question, “why do policemen wear uniforms?” What else are they supposed to do with them?  No, I know:  To get to the other side?  To hang their tasers on?  So the drug lords will know who to give the cash to?  “Is this something about donuts?” Liam said to me after.

“What?” Eva-Lynn repeats.

“That girl,” I say, “look what she has on her chest.”

And sure enough there’s a full spread of Obama on her T-shirt with the eyes kind of bulging out staring at me.

When I recover I say to Eva-Lynn, “I’m going to get me one of them Hitler t-shirts.  I got rights.”  Like she doesn’t know I’m thinking, why do girls wear T-shirts?  As opposed to what?

“Oh shut up,” Eva-Lynn says, so I’ll know she still loves me.

So anyhoo, as my sister-in-law says in lieu of logical paragraph transitions, or when things start getting a little personal, how ’bout that Aristotle quote at the beginning of this article?  Oh my friends, there is no friend.  And before that, the first sentence, about the friend sticking closer than a brother, an unverified citation from the Bible?  One thing you have to be sure of when someone writes about politics, especially if they start throwing the Hitler word around, is that the person who is speaking is responsible, which is to say, that you know who they are, and that they’re saying what they mean.  I really am DAVID KER THOMSON, as it turns out, not feral faun, and for a second after you see “David” you think, hmm, maybe Jewish, but the middle name is pretty waspy, and so on, so he’s on his own with the Hitler word.  I am responsible.  And then the first thing I write after the Bible verse, in an italics which hardly prove anything about authorship, is a quotation of Derrida citing Montaigne repeating a line attributed to Aristotle.  Am I responsible for that?

And not just any quotation, but an impossibility.  An address to non-existent friends.  Oh my friends, there is no friend.  How can you talk to friends who aren’t there?  Said the guy on email.  Am I responsible for this clever line in italics?  What about the two Frenchmen mediating between me and Aristotle?

In the few seconds I have left after my readers, expecting politics, realize they’re being duped and given philosophy, I’d like to give you this one image I picked up online somewhere, I forget where, from someone incognito, probably: voting is like whispering into the ear of a statue.

* * *

Okay, I’m letting all the political folks go now.  They’ll be busy keeping up on all those politicians.  Thumping that statue, seeing if they can get something out of it.  If anyone else wants to stick around for five minutes of philosophy, go to the next paragraph.

Friends—can I call you friends, you know, provisionally, like the way the guy at Los Burritos calls you amigo?  Doesn’t mean we’re best friends, or going out or anything, though I’ll permit myself one group kiss sent out to all of you 279,000 potential monthly readers worldwide.

Let us move fast here.  Quick schematic.  Me, in Canada, mourning, sick at heart, forgotten by my friends, feeling the sting of their contempt, their joy in the new face of their statue, which is a dead thing, but in the Real of pixilation quickened to life.  My favorite philosopher, the Jew, Derrida.  The middle-distance topic for me, for Derrida: 20th century, how most of the great philosophers loved National Socialism, the boot, the state.  Farther off: Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics—friends must be close, nearby, says Aristotle.  And able to spell Nichomachean. 

My friends are my enemies, having sworn fealty to the enemy of everything I hold dear, a simple, gentle, local life.  Sorry to get all serious here but that’s how it is.  Everything I have taught and for which I have struggled all these years is just this: be here, now.  The state is the enemy of all this, a set of pipe dreams for those who abdicate responsibility.  Instead of composting on site, pipe shit elsewhere.  Instead of living authentically in the world, send degraded proxies of yourself elsewhere to foment war and theft even farther afield.  Instead of growing your own food on your own roof and in a collective with your neighbors, fly it in from New Zealand.  Tell yourself often enough that you can’t live without roads, so that you start believing it.  Whip yourself into paranoia so you think you need a standing army to “protect” you.  Fly famous beltway environmentalists around to tell other people how to live.  Keep your distance: the fully detached western democracy home spurns its neighbor, refuses to huddle horizontally or vertically for warmth or affection, and still it cannot stand on its own, but must be held aloft in an entanglement of subsidies and wires and pipes and obeisances to a set of elsewheres in a grid neatly bundled by banksters.  An arrangement of willed helplessness.

The state needs enemies.  Distance leading to helplessness, that’s day one.  It isn’t just that every so often someone sees through, say, Canada’s goodness nonsense about how they’re not fighting in Iraq when, in fact, they are, unless we aren’t counting large-scale “offensive operations” (I think that means, suckerpunch the fuckers before they even think about attacking you) and the “neutralization” of bad guys.  Look under the skirt of all those prim Toronto voter bicyclists who never break the rules at red lights, and what’s beneath the rectitude?  A lock-and-load regime ready to kick some distant ass.

Violence is not incidental, but constitutive.  There’s no reason to have the collocation of a collocation of a collocation we call the state in the first place unless there is an enemy from which the state distances itself.  Enmity is the founding principle, the inaugural instinct, the first exoskeleton of the body politic. No wonder voting and purchasing products from China, the two principle activities of the western political subject, thrive on distance.  There’s just US and UN.

For me, by contrast, proximity is good. 

So who are these distant, close friends?  It is not you, oh my kind, persistent readers, but these long-term long-distance American friends of mine that I’m talking about right now.  Whom I address now.  Are they, are you, there?

Well, it turns out that friendship, appallingly, works at the formal level like a state does. Friendsies?  Sure, friendsies.  But friends cannot be, never could have been, anything other than this potential for loss, which is to say for antagonism.  Enmity makes friendship possible.  You can’t be close without the freedom to be far.  Ouch.  These friendships of mine?  Never meant anything unless abandonment was possible.  Antagonism isn’t just one of the risks of loving, it is the very basis of the friendship.  It’s constitutive.  Oh my, friends.

Derrida’s most popular works on politics and friendship are Specters of Marx and The Politics of Friendship, but I advise no one to read philosophy who has not spent the day outdoors working with her hands, or if you’re in prison, attempting to dig your way out.  Philosophy is the happy hour.  To this end you can get a rare glimpse of Derrida being short and direct in a question-and-answer period at Sussex University, where he describes his own summary of his work as “very, very rough.”  I find that I like my Derrida in the rough.  “We won’t change the world before two o’clock,” he muses, “but what I’m saying is that we have to.”  Goodness, what would feral faun say?  “There is no democracy except as equality among everyone,” (I’ll quote Derrida in the absence of feral faun), “but an equality which can be calculated, countable: you count the number of units, of voters, of voices, of citizens.”  Well, maybe you do, but feral and me, we changed the world before breakfast, just let that definition (of our true selves only counting if we’re counted) drift away like the illusion it is.  The state still steals our money to make roads we don’t want, to pipe our neighbors’ shit into Lake Ontario, to subsidize architecture that’s turned its back on the sun, but it does it as an interloper.  We’re not letting it in the front door with a vote.  You can renounce the empire by two o’clock, become accountable rather than countable.  Feel embarrassed that the empire can count on you to zombie yourself into a voting booth and send off your soul?  Okay, you’re done.  Forgive yourself, move on.  This isn’t rocket science.

But my friends, what about you?  Or, since they’ve promised not to read me, what about them?  Derrida points out that the usual topics of politics are things like government, sovereignty, citizenship, but not friendship.  And I find that I can easily dismiss those topics before my second cup of sassafras—you got to love a tea with a name that can conjure sass and ass—but friendship is another kettle of fish.  Is it possible that the friendliest people on the planet are the most warlike?  If you took just the Southerners in the US armed forces, and just Southern war businesses, you’d still probably have the most powerful force ever assembled.  Certainly the politest and easiest to like.  Hell, maybe I love a boot the same as the next guy.  I’ve put the lowbagger back into the lower U.S. in my time.  I’ve slept a thousand times on the ground in forty-seven of the lower forty-eight, woke up with my face in the dirt, stumbled out and climbed into ten thousand open-faced trucks with Nashville on their minds.  (I’m holding off on Oregon.  Haven’t been able to bring myself to look at all those big trees knocked over.)  I’ve explained to my progressive friends why intelligent normal people would vote for Bush, explained it so many times my friends started thinking I was Bush’s, well, friend or something.

So bust me.  I am Bush’s friend, and Obama’s.  Hitler’s too, for all I know, though Germans are a little weird, and I’d never make my kids wear leather underwear.  On a good day, I even like myself, which would make me my own friend.  Maybe that’s a little kinky.  Whatever.  I didn’t do it, but I dug it, said the citizen to the health inspector regarding his new, unused worm toilet. 

My American friends who’ve voted for Obama aren’t sleeping with the enemy, they are the enemy.  With friends like these, who needs, well, you know.  So now what?  Worst case scenario already happened.  Woke up and your friends threw their lot in with the empire and the pure joy of killing people in Afghanistan.  Feral faun, are you listening to this?  I still love my friends, love them like a brother.

“You haven’t seen your brother in ten years,” says Sebastian, injecting a little note of reality into my weepfest.  “And his house in Nashville is getting repo’d.”

“Well, frankly,” I begin.  But Sebastian has moved on. 

DAVID KER THOMSON is writing a book entitled A, on America and abandonment, portions of which have been published in South Atlantic Quarterly (appearing in January) and in Early American Literature.  Full disclosure: the editors of these publications were friends at the time of publication.  Write to him with suggestions or with snappy answers to the question, “why do policemen wear uniforms?” at dave.thomson@utoronto.ca