Thomas Paine:

“Reason obeys itself; and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.”

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Waking Up Radical

Nightmares during the Bush Administration, a first person narrative

“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal.” —Abraham Maslow via Viktor Frankl

      One morning last week, I broke out of a dream in a panic, breathing hard and fast, as if I’d been running, as if I couldn’t get enough air. Of course, I hadn’t been running; I was in bed asleep, stuck there motionless, like in the dream, where I tried to run for help but couldn’t, while a fish I loved (!) began to drown in the bowl of tap water I had put him in. Unable to get help, or to find the de-chlorinator that would enable him to breathe in tap water, I gathered him in my two hands, where he fit snugly, and began the dream-state option of artificial respiration, compressing and releasing his rib cage, and watching his gape and bulging eyes for signs of recovery. It was almost working. But then I began to internalize his struggle—I couldn’t breathe either, and my panic set in.
      This was not at all like my usual experience of waking, where the mixture of dream and reality is so lovely I want to prolong the event, finding powers there I never have when I am awake. Instead, it was a desperation to breathe, while realizing, gratefully, it was only a dream.
      Then, as I recovered my breath and woke up, I began to think about the part that was not a dream, the part about the tap water, the sad reality that we have so badly contaminated our environment, we need to put chlorine in the tap water to make it safe to drink; but, in the process, we have made this water unsafe for fish. You do not want to put your goldfish in a bowl of chlorinated tap water, not in Southern California. You either need to let the water sit for a day and let the chlorine evaporate, or you have to add de-chlorinator to it, which neutralizes the chlorine, so that delicate cells in fish gills do not die.
      I don’t want to start sounding like Grandma, but, back in the day —let’s say, in the 50’s— you could fill a fish bowl with tap water and plop your guppies in it, no problem. And the water tasted like water is supposed to taste—yummy. Now we have to filter it to get a tolerable taste, or we opt for bottled water, which isn’t any safer than tap water for drinking.
      This situation, our plight, is normal for us now, while the memory of what used to be our blessing —clean water brought to us from far away— fades from consciousness, and we accept this lesser life without question.

      Leaving aside the basic symbolism of my fish dream, where perhaps I expressed fears for myself after breast cancer, and considering the possibility that the dream arose during a sleep apnea incident, I wonder about this fish—how I loved it, how it was about to die, how I was losing it, how nobody could be found to help, how nobody cared, how it was terribly important, how I couldn’t save it, and how its life was slipping away. Isn’t that how I feel about so many things these days—the life of the planet, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, democracy, the balancing power of Congress, the Supreme Court and Justice Department, accountability, a free and independent press, the rule of law...peace...even a president I can believe in? (Now we see Bush exposed as a relapsed alcoholic, and Pelosi still makes no move to impeach!) Isn’t a dream like that the natural consequence of the frustration, helplessness and oppressive quality of life during the Bush Administration? That is, it’s not as though politics, and the public values I love, are external to my life. I don’t think so. They are central.
      Just before I woke up this morning, an old Asian woman in my dream, a shopkeeper, shook her fist at me and demanded, “What about Iraq—how do you like that? And Gaza, what is it? It is nothing but a concentration camp!” and on and on. It was as if she held me responsible, as if she took me for a Republican, someone she had a right to rail at. I felt embarrassed and offended to be taken for a conservative, and yelled back, “Hey! I’m not the enemy! I hate the war! I hate the occupation! I hate George W. Bush...”
      Even in my dreams...

      I also wonder about the panic and urgency expressed in these dreams. It reminds me of an old advertisement I used to see in the New Yorker. Each month, a stylized cartoon would depict a frantic character racing around a room, desperately trying to arouse the attention of the other characters in the cartoon as to a fire, or some other dire threat, while being totally ignored, because everybody is reading the paper. I believe the caption was, “Everybody Reads the Post,” but my memory is fuzzy on this. (and Google search fruitless) In any case, a lot of us feel like that frantic character. Amazing bad things are going on, but most Americans are too busy with their favorite diversion, or entertainment, to notice. Many of us are too somatized (remember Brave New World?) to have the energy and passion to stage a protest, let alone start a revolution—or, better yet, restore the meaning of the first revolution.
      I wish I could say the optimists, all the hard-working people out there who are trying to bring about progressive change, all agog for Obama, are helping. It amazes me how many Democrats prefer not to know what is going on, choose not to question reality or authority, do not search voting records, refuse to listen to outside voices and alternative news programming, prefer not to read about politics, fail to connect the dots, abandon the notion of ethics and accountability in favor of “forgiveness” and “looking forward,” and manage to float happily through life, being nearly as uninformed, conforming and brainwashed as the conservatives they feel superior to. Apparently, it is best to tip-toe around the doggy-doo of doubt, dissent, and dread, that is, the truth, so as to keep the tidy shoes of denial stink-free. One does not want the odor of negativity, which has come to translate as depression, even insanity, following oneself around. It’s just so off-putting, you know? You don’t ever want to smell like a “conspiracy theorist.” For example, so what if nothing makes sense about the official theory of the collapse of the World Trade Center and building #7, like NOTHING; better to scoff at the unbearable alternative, so as not to look like a nut. Well, you’re an American—gotta be chirpy; gotta be up-beat.
      I used to wonder how the German people allowed Hitler and the holocaust to happen. Were they also averse to thinking the unthinkable truth about their government? Did they also engage in a reflexive denial that said, “Oh, that’s impossible.” But now that I have watched Democrats veer farther and farther toward the right, working so hard to avoid being stigmatized —extremist, left-wing radical, commie, conspiracy nut, hippy, unpatriotic, anti-semitic, terrorist sympathizer— that they abandon true democratic values, liberal values, in favor of conservative values, I understand. The labeling is out there; they hear it, and they resist, not by exposing it as shaming, as a manipulation, but by being manipulated, by identifying themselves as “centrist,” to ensure they are not a member of that outside, “dishonorable” group, by moving to the “center,” which today is, in actuality, a right-wing position. I do believe this is self-inflicted social control. Rather than fighting back, by coming up with rhetorical jabs in response —conformist, sheep, fascist, naive sleep-walker, corporatist, unpatriotic, oppressor, torture lover— the timid among us say, “We are above such negativity. We are peace-loving, caring, people, and we will not stoop to their level.” Nonsense. Such talk is a rationalization, where fear, brainwashing, and powerlessness have taken hold. Nor do they defend democratic values in the George Lakoff manner, through better framing, to claim they are: Jeffersonian democrats, critical thinkers, free thinkers, patriotic, human rights advocates— and to stand up for liberal values, to educate others as to what those liberal values are.
      And so, America continues to inch toward a third-world reality with a dwindling middle class, a huge gulf between rich and poor, as, far away, polar bears are drowning, and war is waged forever on behalf of power, wealth and empire.
      All the clichés —outrage fatigue, learned helplessness, crisis of courage, failure of imagination— are true, and here we are, stuck, unable to do what needs to be done to rescue ourselves, from ourselves.

      In the meantime, the circus plays on at the Democratic National Convention, where there’s a lot of rhetoric about change, while nothing changes, except the gradual move toward a police state in the streets of Denver, where the real heroes of democracy are protesting. Unfortunately, we cannot find their point of view in the coverage of the mainstream media. We do, however, have alternative sources of information —clean, uncontaminated, pure, oxygenated good journalism! Dive in. I promise— the water’s fine.


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