APRIL POST: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz

For my father “human progress” was an article of faith. He didn’t talk philosophically very often, but he had his couple of points he liked to pound. Driving the family to town on a Friday night, looking straight ahead at the gravel road, maybe he’d say: “Your Mom and I have it a little better than our parents had it; and you’ll have it a little better than we have it; and your children will have it a little better than you have it.”

Standard Enlightenment thinking, though I didn’t know that at the time. Dad would have called it the American way.

As a child, it never occurred to me to ask him what the “it” included that would get slowly better and better. But I could observe how “it” manifested in our family’s life. The next used car was always a step up from the previous used car. (I was long out of the house before there was an actual brand new car in the family driveway.) Radio evolved into television. The washboard gave way to the wringer washing machine; the wringer to the automatic. The next house we lived in was bigger.

But it wasn’t only material and technological progress that Dad was a true believer in. The “it” also included political progress. Yes, in early to mid-century Europe, Fascism, Nazi-ism and Communism had been a step backward; and too bad for the “Free World” that it had had to ally itself with a monster like Stalin in order to defeat monsters like Hitler and Mussolini.

Anyway, when has human progress ever followed an unwavering straight line. Rather, as Dad described it, it was more steps forward than backwards. And steps backwards, like godless Communism, would fall in due time, even if the Soviet Union now had its own arsenal of nuclear bombs, like the ones we had already dropped (almost casually) on civilian populations in Japan.

In my father’s mind-set — and mine, for a while, in my high school years — what chance did godless Russia (or equally godless China) have against a god-fearing country like our own. My father, in his “the world is slowly getting better and better” statements, was pretty sure there would never be anything so overtly ugly to face again like what our cousins “over there” faced in the two world wars. But if it did, we’d be right “over there” to help them out again.

This was well before the Vietnam War, mind you – before napalm and the baby killing in My Lai and all that. The Vietnam War was the first really big question mark Dad had to look past to keep the faith. And he did. But it was big knock in the head for me. Now I was of draft age, enrolled in college, with a student deferment, so far; nonetheless, guys I knew were dying over there. And fellow students and sometimes professors and books they were having me read were saying we were the bad guys here. And what they were saying was making sense. In 1940’s/1950’s rural Michigan, such a thought would have been preposterous, unthinkable.

And already — if not for my father, then for me — there was this other growing big question mark side by side with the Vietnam War. Television, out of its relatively benign 40’s/50’s beginnings, was now blossoming into a hideously ugly, foul smelling flower, with its insipid programming and its relentless phony ads, millions of them mesmerizing America into a soulless, shop-until-you-drop consumerism. Of course the same thing was happening throughout the First World, but we were leading the way. We were number one in TV watching and consumerism…. And remain so to this day…. We’re number one. We’re number one.

What were our young soldiers “over there” killing and being killed for? In the end over 60,000 of our own dead and a million Vietnamese. To free them from Communism? Come on! Dad and I had always liked to argue, in a friendly way, but now when I’d come home from college on this or that break, our arguments were becoming on the testy side.

“No Dad, this is not progress; this is not the one step backward that goes with the two steps forward; this is a hundred steps backwards, and no turnaround in sight.”

“Where would you rather live, son? Where would you rather live than in America?… Cuba? Russia?”

When Daniel Ellsberg published “The Pentagon Papers” in the early 70’s, and revealed the high level official lies and cover-ups of what was going on in that war between a first-world and third-world nation, for a while there was a whiff of wishful thinking that the America power elites might come to their senses. Vietnam was now going so badly for America, that at least we the people were ready to hear the message instead of kill the messenger.

As for the power elites themselves, they weren’t giving up easily. Nixon’s Secretary of State at the time, the infamous (“infamous” to serious thinkers) Henry Kissinger was calling Ellsberg the most dangerous man in America.

But slowly, though never surely, Ellsberg became a creditable hero to the man on the street, for exposing the heinous American presence Vietnam for what it was: an economic adventure (war is profitable for the rich) that our “leaders” were all too happy to wrap the American flag around.

I myself was teaching college by that time, involved in administration building take-overs, S.D.S., etc. One Christmas vacation, visiting my parents’ home, wearing a Indian headband and a scruffy beard, I said to my old man, “Dad, technological progress is a delusion. The losses entailed within it more than negate the gains. Material progress, the same. Political progress, the same…. Hell, no, I won’t go.”

It hurt him, shocked him, to hear those words coming out of my mouth.

“I’m sure if you were called to fight for your country, you’d do the right thing.”

“Yes. I would,” I said. “I’d do the right thing.” And he knew what I meant.

I don’t think we ever fully healed from that breech. That war was tearing American families apart like nothing before or since. And then Nixon declared a tie in Vietnam and we got to hell out.

So maybe Dad was right after all in his view of human progress, I was thinking, looking for a place we could heal. Maybe Vietnam was after all the one step backwards, if a very long one, that preceded the two steps forward.

But the two steps forward, unfortunately, didn’t happen. America fell asleep for the next fifty years.

Sleep soundly for fifty years, it’s mighty hard to wake yourself up. The American government learned well from Vietnam: no more big wars with 60,000 American dead. Too many military casualties disturb sleep. Wake people up. The American casualties in the whole First Gulf War was in the low hundreds.

And learn to kill from far away, with drones, smart bombs. Americans wouldn’t care all that much about collateral damage, as long as it wasn’t Americans who were killed. Meanwhile keep people preoccupied with things. Focus on things. Goodies. Buying goodies. Selling goodies. President W made it perfectly clear, on television, after 9-11: for God’s sake citizenry, show courage, go out and buy things. Show them you can’t be intimidated.

Long after my father was in the grave, I thought Julian Assange’s “Wiki-Leaks” had the potential to be a wake-up call. But this recent twist in the story — Assange’s expulsion from the Ecuadorian Embassy and arrest in England, thereupon Ecuador immediate receiving a 4.2 billion dollar loan from the America controlled I.M.F. — does not look good at all.

I was drowsily hanging on to a flicker of hope that in the end “Wiki-Leaks” would turn out like the Ellsberg “Pentagon Papers” story; and that now that he had been arrested, public opinion might turn in his favor.

See Dad, I thought. (I sometimes still talk to him in my head.) I might not believe in progress, but I still look for hopeful signs of it.

What a fool I can sometimes be. Scanning the 300 or so readers’ remarks, after reading the online Times article on his arrest, I sadly saw that the vast majority of respondents said, in essence, “lock the sonofabitch up in a dark cell and throw away the key.”

Go figure. Here’s a guy who almost single-handedly intercepted and published secret documents that revealed our power elites in their own words to be the war-mongers and liars they’ve pretty much always been, beholding to big money, as they’ve pretty much always been; here’s a guy who had the sophisticated know-how to ferret this information out, and then the courage to give up his personal freedom so that the people could see what really goes on in high places. And we should “lock the sonofabitch up and throw away the key”?

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

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