Several folks emailed me regarding a recent column I wrote for CounterPunch, 1/30’s “Free Press?”, to tell me that they loved the column but that I had been snookered by an urban myth regarding John Swinton. It turned out that there in fact was a John Swinton who spoke out against the rigged game that is the corporate media, but that the words I attributed to him had in fact been uttered decades before, under different circumstances than the ones I’d believed to be the case.
Realizing that I had been factually wrong caused me some embarrassment. But then I realized that my mistake was quintessentially American. Because America is a society obsessed with artificial mythologies, and by falling prey to a permutation of the truth I was practically doing my patriotic duty.
I’ll go one better. I’ve been doing that patriotic duty my entire life. One of the few memories of elementary school I have left is reading in a Social Studies book about how computers and the automated world of the future were going to create an environment where people would only have to work for a few hours a day. The rest of the time would be left for leisure. Since at that time my mother and I were crowded into a two bedroom tenement with four other relatives, I stood in awe of the future, and imagined a world where those promises of high-tech luxury would come to pass.
I mean, why would they put it in books if it weren’t true? Why would the government put it in their schools if it wasn’t reliable? Those were questions every school kid I’ve ever known has learned to avoid, and I was no exception to the rule.
Turned out I was a fat kid. I bought into the idea that I would be redeemed by weight loss, by looking “normal.” Turned out I had a lisp. I spent evenings working on talking like other kids talked, and endeavored to avoid words ending in S while in public. In blending in, there would be redemption. That was the message of everything from public schools to cable television, all of which were constant advertisements for the idea that people didn’t own themselves. That they were subject to constant examination and random reprisals, and that their only hope was to perform assigned tasks. For a break from all this external pressure to conform, white boys always had video games. Defender, Zaxxon, Galaga; games where you flew a craft and shot and bombed targets and planes without ever knowing why it was to be done. A far cry from Cowboys & Indians, where it was at least possible to imagine why the conflict was taking place.
Throughout high school, I bought into the propaganda, thinking that if I ensconced myself in it I could maybe understand it, be transformed by it even. I did campaign work — sign-waving and phone calls to Republican sorts — for Bush in 1988. The victory party at the Duval County campaign headquarters was a dreary event; Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” played over and over again, a cd track on endless loop, presenting a recurring theme: throaty-voiced pride, with no rationale presented to justify it. The musical accompaniment to the rancid party sub on offer
I was coming to realize, even before I could drive a car, that these folks weren’t conservatives in any real sense. Tell America you love her, thank you, drive through; a message so bleak and political hacks so colorless and venal that there was a Quayle in ’96 faction while he was Veep. When the Cold War finally ended, I waited with interest to be told that the long state of national emergency was over. That the troops would be coming home and that America would fulfill the long-suffering faith of its people and allow them to rest from a half-century of propping up defense contractors.
But that would be too simple. Instead, the bastards went and invented a new Hitler. It’s what you’d expect from the Bush family, who exchanged proverbial business cards with Hitler, Clan bin Laden, and Mr. Hussein himself, the newly-anointed Butcher of Baghdad. Americans were filled with rage over rumors that he drove his armored vehicle down the main street of Kuwait City — like James Garner in TANK — and double-parked in front of Kenny Rogers Roasters, then went in and unplugged the rotisseries, causing all those juicy roasters to go to waste. Actions like that led President Bush to talk of “naked aggression” and “lines in the sand”, and then the poll numbers doubled in 48 hours, as if all the war supporters had gone out and gotten cloned in the interregnum. Of course, you all know what happened next, and all the good it did humanity.
If Gulf War I opened one of my eyes and made me notice that politics and public service weren’t as advertised, then 9/11 opened the other one, punched me in the jaw, and made me recognize that forces colluded to create catastrophe. So-called libertarians wanted to outsource torture, and the would-be liberals ran around like beheaded yard birds. To the Capitol, to give the CIA chief’s baby boy carte blanche for foreign military adventure. Out of the Capitol, scampering away from white powder in envelopes [Just Say No To Anthrax!], or toward the waiting TV cameras to sing patriotic songs, pledge allegiance to the flag, or say their ABCs.
Obviously, the twenty-hour work week will never come to pass. The logistics are flawed, you might say. Or you might say that a few thousand families in this country took our legacy and our birthright and pissed them down their legs.. They polluted our rivers and created a food supply ridden with periodic plagues. And now they want us to thank them for surveying Arab countries for military subjugation. For debauching our currency beyond repair. For building prisons to lock us up and not tell us why. Freedom, safety, security, democracy; in America, in 2003, these are the greatest urban myths of all.