"I have a book up there, confessions of ex communists who quit when they recognized its totalitarian beastliness, The God That Failed the title (including one dull O awfully dull account of André Gide’s that old postmortem bore) - all I have, for reading - and become depressed by the thought of a world (O what a world is this, that friendships cancel enmity of the heart, people fighting for something to fight, everywhere) a world of GPU’s and spies and dictators and purges and midnight murders and marijuana revolutions with guns and gangs in the desert - suddenly, just by tuning in on America via the lookout radio listening to the other boys in the bull session, I hear football scores, talk of so-and-so “Bo Pelligrini! - what a bruiser!! I don’t talk to anybody from Maryland” - and the jokes and the laconic stay, I realize, “America is as free as that wild wind, out there, still free, free as when there was no name to that border to call it Canada and on Friday nights when Canadian Fishermen come in old cars on the old road beyond the lake tarn” (that I can see, the little lights of Friday night, thinking then immediately of their hats and gear and flies and lines) “on Friday nights it was the nameless Indian came, the Skagit, and a few log forts were up there, and down here a ways, and winds blew on free feet and free antlers, and still do, on free radio waves, on free wild youngtalk of America on the radio, college boys, fearless free boys, a million miles from Siberia this is and Amerikay is a good old country yet-“
For the whole blighted darkness-woe of thinking about Russias and plots to assassinate whole peoples’ souls, is lifted just by hearing “My God, the score is 26-0 already - they couldn’t gain anything thru the line” - “Just like the All Stars” - “Hey Ed when you comin down off your lookout?” - “He’s goin steady, he’ll be wantin to go home straight” - “We might take a look at Glacier National Park” - “We’re going home thru the Badlands of North Dakota” - “You mean the Black Hills” - “I don’t talk to anybody from Syracuse” - “Anybody know a good bedtime story?” - “Hey it’s eight thirty, we better knock off- How 33 ten-seven until tomorrow morning. Good night” - “Ho! How 32 ten-seven till tomorrow morning- Sleep tight” - “Did you say you had Honkgonk on your portable radio?” - “Sure, listen, hingya hingya hingya” - “That does it, good night” -
And I know that America is too vast with people too vast to ever be degraded to the level of a slave nation, and I can go hitch hiking down that road and on into the remaining years of my life knowing that outside of a couple of fights in bars started by drunks I’ll have not a hair of my head (and I need a haircut) harmed by Totalitarian cruelty-
Indian scalp say this, and prophesy:
"From these walls, laughter will run over the world, infecting with courage the bent laborious peon of antiquity."
Jack Kerouac, Desolation Angels, I:15 (1965)
Although it’s one of my favourite Kerouac books (more creative, though less accessible, than On The Road or even Dharma Bums) I haven’t read it in a few years and didn’t realise there was a passing, indirect reference to my thesis subject Arthur Koestler (I like Ks and misogynists who have penetrating insights into the human condition). Actually I never read The God That Failed, which Koestler contributed one of the essays to, because it was at least five years outside my timeframe and the library copy was missing. But I read enough about what was in it, and Koestler’s story as recounted in his novels and autobiography - propaganda for the increasingly virulent anti-Communist attitude in the west, but also a genuine psychological exposé of a totalitarian ideology.
It’s not surprising that a book which was so much part of the cultural and political zeitgeist ended up with Kerouac in his fire-lookout cabin on a Washington State mountain. It’s also not surprising, reading these thoughts, that he voted for Eisenhower (or so he is supposed to have said). It may seem a little odd to posit sports fanaticism as a countervailing tradition to totalitarian dictatorships, but I’d imagine it would have a lot of resonance with many conservatives today (not Republicans, necessarily, just conservatives - with a small c, perhaps). You could probably find a New York Times op-ed on the subject, even. Kerouac’s genius was to romanticise in a hectic, muddy way the underbelly of American capitalism - the bums, the petty crooks, the marginal workers - while portraying his journey as an artistic flight from suburban, respectable conservatism.
The right’s been increasingly jumping on this strategy of leveraging identity politics techniques and language for their own ends, and as frustrating as it is to hear, I don’t think it’s been particularly successful. That they keep doing it anyway shows a couple things. First, it shows that they do think of themselves as a persecuted minority, a theme that came through loud and clear in the Tea Party but also resounds in the NRA’s approach. And second, it shows that they still don’t get what the civil rights movements really meant. It wasn’t just about the most visible legalistic moves and the expansion of formal rights. It was about normalizing these groups and including them in American culture. People might occasionally buy that the right’s core groups are being treated unfairly, but they’re certainly not going to buy that they aren’t fully established within America’s self-definition.
And so arguments that they’re not being given an equal chance to have their voice heard simply aren’t going to fly anymore. Gun owners are an important group and deserve to be part of the debate about how we’re going to regulate guns just as surely as long-haul truckers deserve to be part of the debate about how we’re going to regulate long-haul trucking. But it would be far more productive to argue the policy points at hand rather than insisting that the debate shouldn’t even be taking place. They can’t do that, though, because it would betray that definition of gun ownership as a primary identity, rather than just something you do in the course of your life. As long as the right encourages itself to think of its core cultural identity as a set of specific policy stances rather than a group of shared values applied anew to each situation, they aren’t going to let themselves deviate from those policy stances, and so will drift father and farther away from the middle. A political orientation that ties itself to a material reality rather than a particular orientation to the world will grow stale very quickly, and that’s what we’ve been seeing over the last six years.
Another of the parallels between the Newtown aftermath in America and the abortion situation in Ireland right now, is the totally out-of-touch and insensitive reaction of conservative interest groups. In the Irish case, it’s the Catholic archbishops’ extraordinary statement in response to the government’s announcement that it will, finally, legislate on the narrow exceptions to the abortion ban as decided 20 years ago by the Supreme Court: declaring it would “pave the way for the direct and intentional killing of unborn children” - as if that kind of theological-moral judgement has any substantial relevance to a public health policy question, or to modern Irish politics.
Another bishop publicly stated it would be the beginning of a “culture of death”. And if anyone questions their intervention (as some have, significantly) the response is to claim a right to their opinion and free expression, as if the right is now the guardian of liberalism. The more moderate Archbishop of Dublin had it right when he noted that the Minister’s remarks above did not question their right to say anything - but by implication, the way they said it. Of course, if the representatives of a religion have strong moral views on the value of the unborn - as does our constitution, unfortunately - they have a right to express them, but some sensitivity to their position in wider society is required if they’re going to make pronouncements on such fundamental public political issues.
There’s a contrast here I think between the bishops’ statement on the abortion issue and the role of Fr. Seán Healy and the Council of Religious in Ireland in advocating for protecting the poor and raising taxes on the wealthy in government budgets. To wit, that the thundering statements from the bishops do not come out on those genuinely social, societal issues, but rather on the moral issues that illustrate the gap between previously accepted Church teaching and contemporary public and political opinion. Theoretically, the Catholic Church should be about ‘shared values applied anew to each situation’, although by their nature they’ve found it hard to share with many others; while in reality the retreat of religious influence in society has meant that the policy positions - abortion, gay marriage, and the last bastion of involvement in education - have become the totemic items of identity in a largely indifferent world. By comparison, the minority Protestant Church of Ireland has better adapted to the indifference, recognising the principle of public choice while maintaining its own stance on the life of the unborn - but in Ireland ‘choice’ has always been alien to Catholicism, which conceptualises itself as an identity - and a persecuted one at that - rather than as an ideology.