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Shopping, the End of the World and George W. Bush

 

“There shall be a fourth kingdom on earth that shall be different from all the other kingdoms; it shall devour the whole earth,and trample it down, and break it to pieces.”–Daniel 23

As I browsed the New York Times for news of Iraq, terrorism, SARS and the latest environmental disaster, my teenage daughter and her friends arrived with the nutritional equivalent of ecological bio-terrorism. They opened Burger King bags and unveiled cheeseburgers and fat-laden fries (the French might reject their name connected to such items) dipped into what Ronald Reagan called a vegetable (ketchup). They drowned this cholesterol feast with noisy slurps from 22 oz. plastic coke containers.

As they slowly sucked in the artery clogging “fast food,” I recalled the messianic words from the Prince of Darkness, Richard Perle: “This is total war. We are fighting a variety of enemies. There are lots of them out there,” he told John Pilger in the New Statesman, December 16, 2002). “If we just let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely, and we don’t try to piece together clever diplomacy but just wage a total war, our children will sing great songs about us years from now”

If kids eat food like this, I thought, the only songs they’ll sing in the future will be hymns at each others’ premature funerals. Fast food, shopping and total war! Can one encompass epic concepts like waging perpetual war for perpetual peace on the one hand and harmonize them with a vision of a trivialized society whose spiritual glue is perpetual shopping?

The Bushies address this issue through religion, not political philosophy. For example, their policy planners reject scientists’ prognosis of disasters that will ensue from global warming. Indeed, neither corporate CEO’s–except for insurance chiefs –nor government heavies seem to factor global environment into their plans.

The May 7, 2003 LA Times reported, for example, that “lawyers representing some 30,000 impoverished Ecuadoreans are expected to sue Chevron Texaco Corp. today, accusing the second-largest U.S. oil company of contaminating the rainforest and sickening local residents. The suit alleges that a Chevron Texaco unit discharged billions of gallons of contaminated water, causing widespread pollution and illness.”

Other oil companies used similar practices in Nigeria. In 1999 Shell Oil injected a million liters of waste into an abandoned oil well in Erovie in the Niger Delta. Those who ate the crops or drank water in the area fell ill. Almost 100 people died from poisonous amounts of lead, mercury and other toxics. In 2001, exploration for new wells by western oil companies contaminated the fresh water supply, causing serious illness among the local population. The typical oil company responds to such mishaps by explaining: “hey, people drive cars, cars need gas, we supply the gas.” Neither oil company CEOs nor the President addressed the implications of using more fossil fuels.

When pushed, one corporate executive alluded to “God’s will.” At the 1997 Kyoto Conference on environment, Jeremy Leggett, who wrote The Carbon War: Global Warming and the End of the Oil Era (2001), cornered Ford Motor Company executive John Schiller.

Leggett, a Greenpeacer, asked Schiller how he dealt with “a billion cars intent on burning all the oil and gas available on the planet.” Schiller first denied that “fossil fuels have been sequestered underground for eons.” He claimed, instead, that the Earth is just 10,000, not 4.5 billion years old, the age widely accepted by scientists. Schiller then referred Leggett to The Book of Daniel: “The more I look, the more it is just as it says in the Bible.” In other words, Schiller’s “theological” interpretation of the world foresees “earthly devastation [that] will mark the `End Time’ and return of Christ.”

So, like members of the powerful in the White House, just refer to biblical passages to understand those photos of melting ice caps on the Andes and breakups of polar ice caps, like the warming effects of the now frequent of El ninos, which have a devastating impact on the sea and land’s wellbeing.

I juxtapose my fears over deteriorating environment with the rapture experienced over such ecological decay by the very people who manage the destruction. They view optimistically the dire environmental warnings as sure signs that the end is near and the Messiah will return. As a kid in Hebrew school the Messiah would supposedly arrive and take all the Jews to Israel. When my father told my mother about this imminent event, she wailed in despair: “Just after we spent all that money fixing up the house?”

In the no laughs born-again world, however, the Millennium means that the Lord will welcome a smog-filled planet so he can redesign it as it in its original Edenic form. Somehow he will afford to the true believers the necessary lung power to survive and live for a thousand years in Nirvana.

If this sounds bizarre, then read Joan Bokaer, who studied the fundamentalists at the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy at Cornell University. Tens of millions of Americans, she reports, have taken up this apocalyptic form of religion. Not all of them shape their lives dogmatically around this religious vision, but they do tend to dismiss environmentalists as worry warts.

Bokaer adds that these serious soldiers of God see their role as paving the pious road for the Lord’s return. Like the Puritans who settled Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th Century, these modern zealots predict Christ’s return only at the time when they have successfully carried out His work: purged the country of sinners and replaced the corrupt civil law with the dictates of the Bible–which includes, in foreign policy, promoting the battle of Armageddon by supporting Israel.

Like the Puritans, they do not believe in the separation of church and state. The Puritans, however, studied science, believing that God had placed the challenge of discovery before them. Modern fundamentalists tend to disparage the discipline of research to learn about God’s ways and instead direct their energies at promoting ultra right politics: including belittling environmental concerns and supporting Israel. So, long live Israel (even with its population of Jews, whose prayers God doesn’t hear); hooray for depleted uranium in military shells and bombs.

This religious vision –or nightmare–coincides with a society whose main spiritual value is shopping. Place at the political head of this nation a born-again alcoholic and you may have the glue albeit not one that’s logical or holds together disparate pieces in any other way. George Bush’s inflexibility of thinking on the one hand–his dogmatic use of good and evil as politically defining poles–allows him to live with or ignore the obvious contradictions in his imperial plan for world domination on the one hand and his destructiveness on the other. “We need an energy bill that encourages consumption,” he told a Trenton, N.J. audience on September 23, 2002.

In the October 11, 2002 Counterpunch, Katherine van Wormer cites brain studies to “reinforce what recovering alcoholics and their counselors have been saying for years; long-term alcohol and other drug use changes the chemistry of the brain These anomalies in brain patterns are associated with a rigidity in thinking.”

My wife first said it during the presidential campaign debates, when issues emerged for which the programmers had not prepared Bush. “He’s a dry drunk,” she said, referring to the Alcoholics Anonymous term that describes the alcoholic who no longer drinks, but has not stopped thinking about drinking and has not entered a program to deal with his addiction.

Van Wormer, a professor of social work at the University of Northern Iowa and the co-author of Addiction Treatment: A Strength’s Perspective (2002), says dry drunks tend “to go to extremes.” I immediately thought about his religious fundamentalism, his insistence on an extreme tax plan, his threat to “smoke ’em out.” As we all have heard, Bush called for a “crusade” after 9/11–which he later rescinded, but he loved to label his enemies as evil. Van Wormer also lists “exaggerated self-importance and grandiose behavior” as characteristics of dry drunks. Judge for yourselves!

Arguably the least qualified president, Bush presides over the most complicated period of world history. The American economy needs a public in a constant shopping frenzy. That requires certain kinds of freedom–freedom to confuse desire with need. Shopping needs advertising, which needs broad freedom to lure anxious customers into purchasing goods and services to elevate their status, self esteem, sexual prowess, and power, as well as to improve or enhance their body features. In Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World (2001), Eduardo Galeano calls advertisers who “know how to turn merchandise into magic charms against loneliness. Things have human attributes: they caress, accompany, understand, help. Perfume kisses you, your car never lets you down.”

The car–or SUV–has become a basic capital good which our system must mass produce. The very act of producing gas burning vehicles, however, conflicts with the future of human life on the plant–global warming, ozone layer depletion etc… Bush’s policies exacerbate the environmental issue. Instead of confronting this reality, Bush and his followers pray that the end will soon come. Perhaps his troublesome teenage twins contribute to his desire to bring it all to an end.

My teenager finishes her greasy burger, belches and does not sing great songs about Bush.

SAUL LANDAU teaches at Cal Poly Pomona and is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. His films on Cuba, Mexico, Iraq and the Right Wing are available at Cinema Guild 800-723-552. He also writes a weekly column for the progressive webzine, www.rprogreso.com. He can be reached at: landau@counterpunch.org.

 

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SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.

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