Friday, June 11, 2004

The View Out the Window of the Bus
Everybody's got Reagan on the brain today. Thank goodness they're planting the man tonight and we can all get on with our lives. Here are some samples from my e-mail inbox this morning.

"A possible headline for your blog--'Reagan: The New Diana.' Do you remember such hubaloo in your lifetime over a president who died of natural causes? Geez, enough already."
Short answer: No. Nixon's funeral services in 1994 were held entirely in California, and were unique because of his unique place in history. I don't remember LBJ's funeral in 1973, or Truman's in 1972, or Ike's in 1969. But unlike those funerals, this time, we're not mourning a man, a husband, a father, or even a president. We're mourning a potent political symbol at a moment in our history when everything is politicized. So the unseemly rush to put Reagan on the 50-cent piece, the $10 bill, and/or the $20 bill (all proposals introduced in Congress this week over Nancy Reagan's objections) is not so much about honoring Reagan the president as it is an excuse for Repugs to dole out political punishment to Democrats, win or lose. It's a game of Mine's Bigger Than Yours, and they're baiting the opposition into it because they can.

"If the 1984 presidential election had been held in 1983, I doubt Reagan would've been re-elected. You'll recall that the unemployment rate was a whopping 11%, some 250 Marines were killed in a terrorist attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut...and, to divert attention away from that tragedy, Reagan ordered an attack on Grenada. There was also the James Watt fiasco that year." [Watt banned the Beach Boys from the July 4 National Mall concert because he feared they would "attract the wrong element"--a decision Reagan overturned.]
I remember 1983, with Beirut and Grenada coming on top of each other--and let's not forget the Soviet shootdown of the Korean airliner at about the same time, either, and the ongoing nuclear freeze movement. I can still remember the free-floating sensation of dread I felt every time I turned on the news, as if the world had come unhinged in some significant way and it was only a matter of time until those Russian missles came raining down. It hadn't and they didn't, of course--and as my friend went on to note in his e-mail this morning, things turned around, at least for Reagan and the Republicans, in 1984.

Dread (over something unrelated to my social skills, anyway) was a new experience for me then. Now, it's clear to everybody that our world has come unhinged in a significant way once again. But as anybody of progressive bent who's lived through the last three years can tell you, it's possible to build up a tolerance for dread. Yet when you step back and survey the wreckage, sometimes your tolerance leaves you and the proportions of the disaster become breathtaking. At Best of the Blogs this morning, Jerry Bowles suggests we use this national day of mourning to step back--but also to look forward, and think about how we can begin to recover.

When contemplating the proportions of the disaster, it's easy to start feeling that surely, things can't go on like this forever. We must be hurtling toward a terminal point of some sort. No matter what the point might represent--from the terrorist attack that results in suspension of the Constitution and martial law, to the Rapture the fundies keep dreaming about, to an asteriod pancaking the planet--the idea that at some finite moment we are going to end this era and begin another can be weirdly comforting. Surely it's more comforting than the alternative, which is that things become more chaotic and things keep hurtling even faster but we never end up anywhere, like we're all riding an out-of-control bus that never crashes, but just keeps careening endlessly through the streets.

So here's some (potentially) good news: The endpoint may be coming, and damn soon. From San Francisco (where they should know if anybody does), Mark Morford draws together the various threads of apocalypse that seem to be all around us and finds the possibility that sort of doomsday mega-event, a comet or asteroid impact or suchlike, may befall us in the next few weeks, perhaps as early as next weekend.

Figures it would be on a weekend.

As I first read Morford's column and clicked some of the links included, I got another little shiver of dread, an older kind, not the familiar "Christ, what's Bush done now" dread, but the kind I used to get from reading Frank Edwards books (or the Book of Revelation) when I was a kid--the dread that comes from realizing that while some things are just too weird for our minds to comprehend, they could happen anyhow. But the more I think about the chance that The End is Near, the less I dread it and the more I feel like saying "Bring it on." I don't expect the world to last forever; neither am I afraid of dying. And if the world is going to go, we'll have much less regret should it go by way of some natural disaster than because of some human-induced stupidity. I'm not suicidal by any means--but if we have to go sometime, and we do, and it's our misfortune to have that time be now, then so be it. Why fight it?

Of course, then I clicked Morford's last link, and it was back on the bus again. Maybe.

In the summer of 1999, I wrote an article for the local alternative weekly in Iowa City about the coming of the millennium. (The paper no longer exists, and to put the article on the web I'd have to type it in, so don't expect to see it anytime soon.) The gist of the article was that believing an end is coming soon actually frees us from the need to solve our problems. (Remember when Watt, Secretary of the Interior, told Congress that "my responsibility is to follow the Scriptures, which call upon us to occupy the land until Jesus returns," which was interpreted as saying there was little need for long-term management of forests or oil reserves?) It's a lot harder to accept the idea that the journey is all there is--that there's no destination, and so we have to deal with our problems rather than assuming that after a while, they (or we) will no longer be a problem. Now maybe, we're not wired to do that. Maybe our mortality makes it impossible for us to take the long view even if we're inclined to. But who can deny that we'd be better off if we could?

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