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“If some can sacrifice their lives, then surely the rest of us can give our attention.”
Oregon Symphony Orchestra conductor
from a June 14th commencement address speech
I often travel these roads up and down and across Texas, up into the mountainscapes of Northern Arkansas, over forgotten roads that wind into the Ozarks, across to Little Rock, occasionally down into Louisiana, stopping sometimes at country stores that no longer have cokes in glass bottles but that still, occasionally, produce oldtimers wanting to kill a little time, squint into the hot sun, and chew the fat with a stranger.
I sometimes tell them how I passed through here a half century ago, my father’s small companion as he looked for land to buy, as his forebears had done, how our people had come from the old country and settled here where the soil was fertile, even though none of them had ever farmed.
My own ancestors’ migration down from New York or up from New Orleans, later pondered, made no sense. The country they chose now makes no sense, but I keep that to myself as a strong, elderly Arkansan who eyed me suspiciously as I paid for a bag of cashews inside now swigs the last drops from an aluminum can of Mountain Dew, tosses the can toward a metal trashcan and misses, then points at my chest, where “Free Iraq” cries out from the blackness of my tee-shirt. Certainty in his worldview keeps his forehead unfurrowed.
“What’s that mean?” he asks, his finger rigid. “We freed them.”
The more we free them, the more we need reinforcements, I think to myself. I hesitate, usually a mistake. “You think it’s time we bring the troops home now?” I then ask aloud, determined not to step into a fighting ring but wanting a bit of conversation with some relevance to the nightmare that a pre-empted invasion has levied upon us.
He stares at me, and for a moment I am thoroughly confused until I digest the fact that my artificial, seemingly safe question has baffled him completely.
“We lost a boy come from up north of here a bit,” he finally says, then tugs at his right ear. I wonder what the tug means, reflect for a split second on how human gestures are as elusive as human nature.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say. How many Iraqi boys just north of how many places were lost? “Maybe Bush will bring the guys home now and the killing can stop.” That’s as far as I go. I feel my error but can’t define it. He stares at me a moment, looks as if he might spit but decides against it, perhaps because I’m female, then turns and heads on out toward a yellow truck with a long-legged dog in the back, no parting word. I realize that our brief exchange was as different from the memories of my father and smalltown strangers gabbing as canned Mountain Dew is from a cold glass bottle of coke. Times are different. A few words, and he has tagged me as one of “them.” A few gestures, and I have tagged HIM as one of “them.” We are on different sides of a stone wall, and the top of the wall is jagged with shards of broken glass, like the walls you see in Central America.
* * *
“Us versus Them” casts a heavy pall across all the vastness of Bush country. There are the “haves” versus the “have-nots” with an absurdly large number of the have-nots believing they are the haves. (A recent poll showed that a noticeable percentage of people making $39,000 a year thought they were in the upper one percent of the country.) These delusional haves, who think the new tax breaks are designed for THEM, are more disdainful of the poor than the rich are.
Bush country is rigid and brittle. It’s an unending disconnect from a true picture, like a crude imitation of a Georges Seurat painting where the dots are so emphasized that they strangle the landscape. What should be an endless scattering of fine points that emerges into a solid, unequivocal mass remains simply a tired pile of dots.
Us vs. Them. Those are the dots, and they’re ubiquitous. Rich vs. poor. Black vs. white. Patriots vs. “left-wing wackos.” The “saved” vs. heathens. Christians vs. Muslims. Catholics vs. Christians. Good vs. evil. Red states vs. blue states.
The dots don’t serve a greater good, will never give us a Seurat, because there is no acceptance of nuance. “Nuance” would be considered suspect in this black and white world so intolerant of gray, so frightened of anything off the beaten path.
“You’re either with us or against us.” That thought, absurd to so many of us, is embraced, is admired for its lack of nuance. Its starkness opens the window for heads that nod in lockstep agreement when they hear that the other side “hates freedom,” is “evil,” is a danger to God-fearing men.
Last April, driving through the center of Texas on one of the back roads, I passed a huge yard sign that said, “Iraq today; France tomorrow.” YOU’RE EITHER WITH US OR AGAINST US. Bumper stickers whiz past me on the dusty roads: “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.”
Nuances are challenging; grayness is threatening. In this land of fierce fundamentalism, people don’t want to think that a god-fearing leader could be wrong or, worse, would lie. They went through it with Clinton and accepted that a president COULD lie, because sex is still closely connected to sin in many of these areas. But one president who lied is all the cup can hold. The glue will melt if they have two in a row, and stuck on that one dot, many of the people in Bush country refuse to discuss the difference between lying over a sexual matter that hurt no one and lying to lead a nation into war, where defense contractors and corporations would make millions while thousands of innocents would die.
IF they discuss such things, they are diving into water that is deeper than they might expect. They could lose the air in their lungs before returning to the surface. If they say Clinton’s lie was harmless in comparison to those coming from the current administration, they are saying that the Rhodes Scholar was a better man than the good old boy, the one that many still think of as a beer-swigging fellow putting in a hard day’s work in an oilfield, a man who doesn’t “put on airs” or use long words or make them feel mentally inferior.
The work ethic down here is powerful, but there’s fallout from judging a person’s worth by how hard he works: constant work leaves little time for thinking. I found myself in an argument with a relative a few years ago, wherein I suggested that most of the advances of Western civilization existed because the men of Greece had the leisure to wander through the agora, to contemplate, wonder, and converse. My relative asked me, “Didn’t they have anything better to do?”
Intellectuality is not trusted in these parts. Sticking to your gainful employment, counting progress by its material make-up, and conforming to what you’ve been taught from childhood on is considered strong character. When I first returned to this area many years ago, one of the salient intros was bumping into an old classmate at the Piggly Wiggly and having him ask whatever happened to a mutual acquaintance we’d known in school. With pride, I told him about my artistic friend, who was (and is) a painter in Manhattan. The old classmate asked, with sincerity, “What’s he paint? Buildings?” If my friend painted buildings and made a good hourly wage, he would be labeled a success. But because he paints soft geometric canvases and lives in a loft, he’s suspect. I saw it that day, that moment.
The admiration for non-intellectuality can be tolerated. We should certainly have the freedom to choose what we admire. But it doesn’t stop there, and the rigidity of a country where judgment is so prevalent turns the admiration into hate, that emotion kept readied for the enemy.
It’s in the history. YOU’RE EITHER WITH US OR AGAINST US.
George W. Bush, who has a problem with “the vision thing” that causes his father’s confusion over the matter to pale in comparison, is the man of these people. They didn’t mind his inability to name the leaders of foreign countries when he was put into office, and now they don’t mind the way he whips up frenzies through an incessant talk of “evil.”
Now, though, the country, or at least its integrity, seems to be falling apart at the seams as lie after lie is uncovered. The test of loyalty comes next, and the scores made on the test will probably determine the future resilience of our nation. Even the people in the reddest of the red states are eventually going to have to name the crime for which history will judge George Bush.
Was it that he was simply kept out of the loop, failed to do his homework, check his own information? If so, then either ineptitude or ignorance becomes a crime. If the CIA, or the State Department, or Cheney, failed to tell Bush that there was no evidence of Iraq posing a serious threat to our country (they were all clearly informed), does that let the Commander off the hook? We all cut our teeth on the adage that ignorance of the law is no excuse. Is ignorance of the facts forgiveable when over two hundred trusting young soldiers lie dead as a result?
Or was the crime the assumption that Dick Cheney would keep him apprised of any danger to the country? Was he truly unaware that the role of president is made up of more demanding requirements than grinning for photo ops in a flight suit or reading to elementary school children even after being told that there had been a terrorist attack? Didn’t he know that he took an oath to learn what was happening in the world instead of waiting for Cheney to tell him, activity beyond “smoke ’em out” or “get ’em dead or alive” or “Bring ’em on” sound bites?
Or was the crime made of harder material? Did the leader of the country, in short, tell a bold-face lie in order to get a foothold in the Mideast for the eventual control of the world’s most precious resources?
Is it prefereable to be ignorant, even if it peels back the skin and shows little responsibility for the people whose lives would pay for such ignorance? Or is it preferable to lie in order to gain control of the Caspian Sea pipeline and the Iraqi oil and a stepping stone to Iran, and then Saudi Arabia, all in the march to control the world?
I want to go to those country stores as a pollster. I want to ask the man in the yellow truck and a woman in Dallas who called me an obscene name for wearing a pin that said “No blood for oil” to answer a couple of questions. I want to go back and ask the family who has the “Iraq today, France tomorrow” sign in their front yard to participate in the poll. I want to pull in the man who mows my lawn, who recently argued with me while laughing, “Those liberals may call him a cowboy, but one thing they can’t deny. He’s a helluva straight shooter.”
Simple poll. A or B. He acted out of ignorance or he lied. Which is it, I want to ask them. The fact is that when a young man is shot because of ignorance, his blood drains from his body at exactly the same speed as it does when he is shot because of a lie.
One of the darkest incidences in American history has occurred. Deceit was involved, probably more heavily than we now guess. According to Iraqbodycount.net, approximately 7,000 innocent civilians were killed. Demographically, that would mean over 3,000 of those innocents were children. As of today 147 young American servicepeople who put their trust and their lives into the hands of their Commander-in-Chief are dead. We will never know how many thousands, or tens of thousands, of nearly defenseless young Iraqi soldiers died trying to protect their homeland from a foreign invader whose military might was unmatched in human history. And an Iraqi resistance is growing, a steady force that will keep killing American soldiers one by one until they leave.
The Greeks use a phrase, “The king must die.” They mean it in the sense that the king must ultimately take responsibility for everything that happens. Harry Truman said the same thing when he told us that “the buck stops here.”
Our country lost much of its integrity when it invaded a sovereign nation against the wishes of the world last spring. The fact that a despot ruled Iraq in no way legitimized such an invasion, unequivocally forbidden by international law. What integrity survived is now fading as the people in the White House take turns pointing fingers while the president says the matter is now closed. The matter is NOT closed; the crime must be identified.
While Bush is guilty, whether he was duped or deliberately and cold-bloodedly lied, the greater crime lies in the ignorance and apathy that allows inept and immoral leaders to stay in power. The ultimate crime lies with all the Mountain Dew-swigging men in the yellow trucks who believed what appeared on cable news without questioning it.
A few days ago Rahad Septi of Fallujah, age 10, was shot by frightened young American soldiers as she played hide-and-seek with her friends. Her blood is smeared into the gasoline being pumped across the nation by people who never had the intelligence or curiosity to question evidence that was not accepted by the rest of the world, people who seemed to believe that waving tattered flags from their windows met all the requirements for being good citizens and good people.
We shrug off the good old boys of Bush country as innocent and ignorant. Perhaps it is only when our own sons lie dead at our feet that we can see the venom in the ignorance that too many of our countrymen find harmless.
Tommy Franks says “We don’t do body counts,” but we know that untolled thousands of young people lie dead, killed indirectly by the hands of a few people who counted on ignorance to give them power. And hundreds of thousands of voting Americans will sleep like babies tonight, never knowing that they themselves are the real killers.
LISA WALSH THOMAS is a former arts columnist and gifted education specialist, a lifelong political activist, poet and writer. Her second book, “The Girl with Yellow Flowers in Her Hair” is available online through Pitchfork Publishing. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org