I’m returning from doing readings upstate, once more along the Hudson. Worrying about my coffee spilling onto the brown leather shoes of the man next to me reading Susan Sontag’s Regarding The Pain of Others. Sontag, the public intellectual. What does that mean? It means smart and beautiful. It means she’s not afraid to build a theoretical framework for enjoying trash culture but then also heaving her mighty intellect not just against the meaning of fame but on suffering, and guilt, and dying. Not afraid to engage, not worried what her father thinks. She said she stopped dating men as she get older because she couldn’t stand to be with someone who wasn’t beautiful and as she aged a beautiful man would no longer have her. I remember her essay in the New Yorker after 9/11, the essence of which was, We brought this on ourselves. I was livid. There is no justification for flying a plane into a building. You can’t say this is our fault just because, as a nation, we’ve done horrible things. What nation hasn’t done horrible things, given the chance? She was speaking of noble savages, proud and beautiful and as dumb as they were stateless. It was a serious underestimation. There were flags out in front of the buildings and I thought, this is comfortable; we’re comforting each other. Not everybody like the flags, but I thought it was appropriate. Of course, there’s a time to put the flag away, when the attack is long ago and Osama bin-Laden has already achieved his goals, a super-powered individual, a billionaire’s son. There’s a moment when the stars and stripes whip one way, and then the other, and comfort turns to nationalism and 9/11 becomes a rallying cry for death cults.
Then there was Afghanistan. I live in San Francisco so of course we had protests and among the protesters Israeli flags with lines drawn through them, pictures of Arafat as if he was a hero when even Arafat knew which side the bread was buttered on. And I didn’t march because I thought, well, we have to go in Afghanistan. I’m not against every war, much as I’d like to be. I was aware of the conflicts in the Middle East, much more than I am now. I had returned from Palestine only a week or two before the attacks, I was up to date on the international news. I had spoken with Uzi Landau, the Israeli Minister of the Interior, and a Palestinian General near the bombed out police station in Rafah. They both complained to me about the lies that were told in the New York Times. It was the height of the second Intifada and Arafat was playing catch-up, Hamas was making their move. I’d been shot at in Gaza, a friend had lost his hearing when a bomb blew through the windows of Sbarro’s in downtown Jerusalem.
And then we decided to invade Iraq, and that was an obvious mistake. We’d already given our surplus away to the richest Americans, there were still weapons inspectors on the ground, and we were nowhere near finished in Afghanistan. On the television was Condi Rice holding pictures of mushroom clouds drawn by children on construction paper* when there should have been documentaries about Field Marshall Schlieffen and the strategy of annihilation, and the difficulty of waging war on two fronts. There’s a great quote in The Assassin’s Gate when a senior official in the Bush administration tells George Packer, I will never, till the day I die, know why we invaded Iraq. In other words, not just that he didn’t know, but that it was unknowable.
You can’t take it back. There are no “If Onlys”. In high school I stood with some punks on a street corner south of Devon. Phil Hamrick was there, and George Hernandez, who was sleeping with Phil’s mom. And some other kid, who referred to himself as Assyrian but was part of the wave of Kurds that arrived in West Rogers Park when Saddam Hussein came to power. It was a bad corner, a place for buying drugs and getting in fights, a place for kids like Brian O’Shey casually strolling by with weapons hanging from their belt loops, on the verge of some horrible act that would put them away for good. And the Assyrian said he was moving to California because college in California was free. And college in California could still be free, but it isn’t. The state is bankrupt, the jails are packed, the infrastructure is entering a dangerous state of decay. I mean, I remember a kid telling me he was moving to California because the colleges were free, and they were the best state schools in the country. And the people who said the Iraq invasion would pay for itself are the same ones saying we can’t afford healthcare, the same ones who thought all Iraq needed was a strong dose of privatization, and it goes on and on.
And I was listening to Marc Maron and someone asked why he didn’t do politics anymore and he said he was tired of yelling. The people on your side cheer you on but the people listening to Glenn Beck don’t care about your argument. The difference between humans and apes is that humans can rationalize their desires. An ape doesn’t need to explain an appetite for sex or violence. Now imagine an ape flying a plane into a building.
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