Sunday, April 26, 2009
I'm beginning to like the Great White Whale, the Chevy Impala I rented here in SoCal, Palm Springs to be exact. You can get at least ten illegals in the boot - sorry, trunk - and it just sort of rolls along the freeway in a perfectly satisfactory manner. Okay, it digs in horribly on tight corners and feels as though you're towing a caravan, the chassis having failed to resolve the Whale's great length. But it's not malevolently bad like the Sebring I drove around here last year. It reminds me, in fact, of the GE washing machine in this house. This is white also and it is, more or less, identical to the machine my mother was using in the sixties - big, top-loading, spinner thing in the middle shaped vaguely like certain stupas. Unlike the Whale, it's fantastically noisy, but both the Whale and the GE are out of date, big, inefficient and built in defiance of the mood of the times. The Whale is to an Audi what the GE is to a Miele. But they are both consoling, they represent a very American longing for the solidity of the modernist industrial age as opposed to the tricksiness of the post-industrial, post-modern world; both are anti-European.
The dark side of this atavism is that it produced the anti-diplomacy and official torture of the Cheney-Bolton years (Bush seems, somehow, to have faded from memory). Diplomacy then meant a swift indication that, being America, you could do what you liked and, if you said nasty things about us, you were too evil to consider. Hence the Republicans acting like mouse-spotting schoolgirls when Obama shook hands with Chavez. The point is, of course, that if you make it clear that Chavez is too evil to talk to, then you've handed him Round One on a plate. If you're unexpectedly nice to him (Game Theory, Benign Tit for Tat), then a)you make him look like a craven supplicant, as he did on this occasion and b)you look fair and reasonable if, later, you are nasty. Anyway, he doesn't matter, another reason Republican shrieks are absurd.
Driving the Whale east on 10 (I love the way Americans talk about their roads), I heard a radio discussion about guns on a show hosted by Michael Medved. Medved is not a 'shock-jock' like Limbaugh, but he's just as right-wing and he's very pro-guns. Since Obama came to power, apparently, guns and ammo sales have soared. Maybe the survivalists are expecting breakdown because the Prez is now a commie black or, more likely, many people fear higher taxes and fiercer restrictions on guns. All the pro-gun arguments were nonsensical - and, in the light of the actual figures, downright wicked. Put it like this, I'm happy to be burgled if I don't have to be shot. But I've given up trying to understand Americans and guns. Except, on this occasion, the Whale - I hadn't met the washing machine at this point - came into it again. This country loves guns as a further aspect of their sentimentality about the industrial age. They love them so much they have invented a constitutional right to lethal violence. Guns also are anti-European and 30,000 deaths and 70,000 injuries a year are a small price to pay.
And so came a moment of blinding revelation. During the campaign, Obama intended us to hear that supposedly private fund raiser speech about people clinging to their guns and religion. He wanted to appear condescending and elitist and I'm beginning to see why. Frank once made a big point to me about Obama's Chicago roots. We all know the Chicago way from The Untouchables - if they put one of yours in the hospital, you put one of theirs in the morgue. Obama put Bill Clinton in the morgue and seems to have hosptitalised/neutralised Hillary. He does it by giving people enough rope to hang themselves. Come on, he says, say it - as when, for example, he invites the charge of elitism or shakes hands with Chavez - and, when they do say it, through some weird political alchemy, they end up looking ridiculous. That is, in fact, exactly what he's doing with Cheney by releasing the torture memos. Cheney, having spent his years in power using silence to such deadly effect, is now babbling, attempting to justify himself and looking more stupid by the day. He doesn't get it, because he's not Chicago. Perhaps sacking Rick Wagoner was a way of inviting GM to make fools of themselves.
Cheney can't even bring himself to call Obama the President. He just calls him 'Obama'. Even Michelle, when telling some story about their new dog, Bo, waking them in the middle of the night, called him 'the President'.
Ah yes, dogs. The English are supposed to be funny about dogs, but, in fact, the Americans are totally hilarious on the subject. I watched Marley and Me - the latest Jennifer Anniston vehicle - on the way over. This dog was better, more real than any of the people. In fact, the film seemed to be an indictment of the human species when compared to the canine. Yesterday, at a smartish restaurant, a rich-looking man bought in a perfectly-groomed King Charles Spaniel and business halted as everybody cooed and stroked. They are dog-demented here.
At the next table a lawyer - let us call him Hiram P. Shark - and a very old, very rich man - Wilberforce T. Magnate - were talking. Magnate was accepting Shark as his company lawyer. As soon as he agreed, Shark rang the PR and said the announcement should be put out on Monday. Coming off the phone and now in power, he started discussing Magnate's directors. One by one, he knifed them all. Amazing - I know it happens everywhere, but it was just so naked, so easily overheard.
And, speaking of corporate brutality, Obama made a big show of telling the credit card people to stop acting like loan sharks. The next day I saw a TV ad for all these companies. It invited people to come to them if they had debt problems. One minute they're Al Capone, the next they're Mother Theresa. At the critical moment, brutality has to be smoothed over with PR honey. Yet, at the same time, there's a sort of sentimentality about brutality and violence. Read Lewis Lapham's intro to the current edition of Lapham's Quarterly - amazing mag. People will still sort of admire the credit card companies for profiting when times were good, even as they nod in gratitude at their offer to help them with debt.
But, as I say, the Whale's okay. To be honest, the washing machine is pretty good also. American plumbing in general is much better than European. I'm also sentimental about the industrial age with all its shortcomings. I'm sentimental about Ah-MER-RikA, especially about the deserts of SoCal. I'm not far from the hippie shop in Joshua Tree where I bought my first pair of cowboy boots - second-hand and a bit small. JT is also where Gram Parsons died. I've felt the tweak on the thread. I'm home. Sort of.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 12:45 pm