Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Five years on

When I was at Drew University way back in the early nineties, earning my bachelor's degree in English and History, I went through a period when I was obsessed with two of the most disturbing events of the 20th century (not that there weren't plenty of those to choose from): the Holocaust and the Vietnam War. In my last real semester as an undergraduate, I took one particularly mind-blowing class (led by Dr. Ann Saltzman) on the psychology of the Holocaust. I think that was probably the first time I had heard the term "routinization," which in this context was used in reference to the majority of citizens under the Nazi regime, who may have initially been horrified by the actions of their "overlords," but who, as time went on, became anaesthetized to Hitler's violence. That is, though these citizens may not have explicitly approved of the gas chambers (for instance), they grew to accept them as part of the "new world order." It was that weird resignation, that weird casual refusal to take responsibility, that (many would argue) actually enabled the Holocaust to happen.

At around the same time, the first president Bush took us all into Iraq for Gulf War no. 1. What a crazy thing that was. Yellow ribbons (despite the extremely low casualty rate), full-page spreads in all the reputable news magazines, rah rah, we whupped 'em good, didn't we? I can remember being against that war too, getting into arguments with friends about it, convincing a few of them of the stupidity of it all. I was in the minority, alas. For my little east coast community, at least, Iraq 1.0 was kind of a purging of all the demons of Viet Nam (which was seen as "the first war American lost"). And even for me, an avowed pacifist, I had to admit that the swiftness with which we kicked Saddam out of Kuwait made me feel like, well, what the fuck... nothing can touch us, right? We've got it together as a country, even if we're being led by a jerk who often seemed like a parody of himself (believe me, Bush I made Dana Carvey's job easy).

I hated that war, and I hated the way that my family and neighbors seemed to think it was no big deal. But I was young, I was in college, and I was looking for a fight. The sad thing is that I didn't know -- none of us knew -- how relatively blissful that period actually was.

It occurred to me today that it's strange, very strange that we don't have national days of mourning for 9/11 and Katrina -- two of the most concentrated catostrophic fuckups in American history (conveniently packed into one godawful presidency). But then I wondered, if such official recognitions did exist, would they really make any difference? I can still remember everything about where I was and what I felt on Septmber 11, 2001 -- and I feel like I should be forcing myself to recall my own experience of that day as vividly as possible whenever the anniversary rolls around. Stoke the anger, I muse: maybe that will lead somewhere productive.

But I also feel as though, as Americans, we've gone through a process of routinization, responding as any sentient being would to a constant barrage of violence, lies, and affronts to decency: tune it out. Make yourself numb. This in fact is a psychological defense mechanism: it helps one to maintain sanity in an insane world. But it may also be the key insight of the strategists who got Bush II elected in the first place: in a mostly apolitical world, one can be as evil as one likes. In other words, create a context of constant evil, and evil itself no longer appears as an aberration. It is, instead, the way we do business.

Maybe this is where art can step in and actually be valuable. For instance: as I type I am watching Spike Lee's documentary on Katrina. Wow, it brings that disaster back with an unbelievable vividness. It's a merciless artwork that drives directly to the heart of the evil.

Man, I gotta do that too. Even in the midst of all the comedy in my own group, there has to be that arrow to the heart of evil. Otherwise what's the point, in a world like this?

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