Study for Black Flag(6C), 1990, charcoal on paper 75 x 105 cm,
Photo — Paolo Terzi, (c) Galleria Mazzoli, Modena
John Jeremiah Sullivan’s new essay collection, Pulphead, is getting a lot of attention these days, looking as it does at our all-American obsessions with God, celebrity and cash. It’s a fine book, and deserving of its accolades, yet ultimately, I think it’s too upbeat. We’re in an apocalyptic mood in America. Or at least we would be if we could get up the energy to care. We feel the end is near, but we’re so exhausted by the idea the best we can muster is a bit of malaise. Sure, some of us are out there preaching hellfire and revelations, awaiting the rapture for ourselves and annihilation for the rest. And the more politically inclined are occupying this and that, seeing now their chance to tear down the walls and to begin again from scratch. But the vast majority of us? We’re not yawning exactly, but we’re dispirited.
It’s sort of like when Carter was in office and all those »Have A Nice Day!« smiley faces made us want to go and crawl under the covers. Only Reagan riding in on his white horse was enough to get us out of bed. »It’s morning in America«, his ads said, and smelling the aroma of tax cuts, we went to get a cup. And today? Is Mitt our new Reagan? Not by a long shot. Sure, his policies would be much the same, bringing back the trickle down economics that worked like a golden shower on our heads. But the man doesn’t inspire. He’s like a model for crisp white shirts, there to fill the garment and little else. Besides, he’s a Mormon, one of the few religions most of us still seem comfortable making fun of, even the politically correct. We feel fine mocking it, laughing about the Mormon’s belief that the Indians were the lost tribe of Israel and that they passed down to Joseph Smith – a convicted con artist – their ancient knowledge regarding the value of polygamy, the dangers of coffee, and the sanctity of something called »magical underpants«. Yet even these claims are nothing compared to that most bizarre one, namely that The Osmonds were superior to The Jackson Five. Heretics! Apostates! Is nothing sacred?! Micheal Jackson for president!
No, Romney doesn’t have half the charisma Reagan did, and he’s so white he makes even Barack Obama look black. I mean, come on, Obama’s a great guy and all, but he’s about as funky as … well, The Osmonds. Sure, he made a nice Al Green when handed the mike, and okay, he invited Mick Jagger to The White House and danced to his tunes. But he lacks the fire most of us hoped for when we voted for him. I realize he’s doing his best and I’ll definitely pray for his reelection, but with only weeks to go it’s unclear why he hasn’t thrown down with Romney. The empty shirt doesn’t need a Boy Scout to oppose him. He requires a no-nonsense truth-teller like Malcolm X.
Speaking of empty shirts, what the hell are we to make of our recent conventions? In both cases, the men given the pivotal task of introducing to the country its leading man to be, overshadowed that man to such a degree we’re now a bit confused who’s running for what. Bill Clinton speaking for Obama so impressed with his rhetorical skills that many could later be heard saying that the concept of term limits should be abolished and that cigars be considered sex toys and leave it that. And Clint Eastwood speaking for Romney was so … well, what exactly? Confused? Out of touch? Suffering from dementia or engaging in avant-garde theater complete with props? Hard to say, other than that he overshadowed in a way his handlers no doubt never intended.
Ambling in under a Citizen-Kane-large image of himself as the High Plains Drifter, he made like a cranky drunken uncle, determined to toast the bride with some sort of unclear reference to premarital sexuality (»I can’t tell [Mr. Romney to] do that to himself«) and a muttered conclusion we applaud simply to get him to stop. »He’s my hero and he can do whatever he wants.«, said one supporter afterward on the website of UsMagazine. »Old prune face needs to shut up and go home.«, another replied. Make my day, indeed.
Unsex me here, 1990
94 x 104 x 55 cm
One thing about the Clint on Clint showdown – it underscored the direction of the two parties, not to mention our conflicted populace as a whole. Clinton, the comeback kid, didn’t merely seem poised for yet another turn in the spotlight, he spoke of blowing up that recently burst bubble in tones both enlightened and nostalgic. He was our favorite college professor (»now listen to me here, this is important«) combined with the coolest kid in class, the one who cracked the books long enough to ace the test and get the girls. Eastwood, meanwhile, striding out on stage beneath an image of his younger self as a black-hatted anti-hero, seemed the perfect symbol of a party that still supports a woman who drew gun sights over the faces of her opponents. From the white-hatted »morning in America« days of Reagan to the »make my day« vigilantism of »barracuda« Palin and her talk radio posse, the Republicans are up in arms (and not just about the right to bear arms). They want to take back America by force, making it safe for the unborn while endangering the lives of everyone else. Case in point, a recent proposal to add a constitutional amendment outlawing all abortions, even for pregnancies resulting from rape or threatening the mother’s life. The latter, of course, makes perfect sense for a group that thinks women’s sexuality should be limited to procreation (those sluts!), but the former takes a degree of anti-intellectual chutzpah one almost has to admire. According to Missouri’s Republican congressman, Todd Akin, a »legitimate rape« cannot result in pregnancy because the woman’s body will shut down, rejecting the assailant’s sperm. In other words, any woman who gets knocked up from being forced to have sex must have enjoyed it (does their carnality know no bounds?) And the audacity of the anti-intellectuals continues to startle. Just yesterday, a Republican congressman from Virginia said that birth defects were God’s punishment for past abortions. What God’s punishment is for asinine comments such as his own, he didn’t reveal.
Yes, idiocy runs rampant in America, overwhelming the attempts of the enlightened to bring back a measure of our core principles: »all men are created equal«. If it isn’t our politicians, denouncing half of us and acting as if the movies were a guide for life, then it’s the stars and their handlers, inundating us with their nonstop Twitter-fed fluff. What happened between Katie Perry and Russell Brand? Did John Travolta really grab that guy’s cock? And what about Clint? Did he really have too much to drink before his speech? While the country descends into a High Plains red sunset and the blood colors rise from Afghanistan to Iraq, we sit here watching an actor and a politician who should have been one, forgetting about the men we’ll actually have to choose between.
Our food is genetically modified and our children increasingly allergic, but are we asking if there might be a link there, or between the fact that the Republican-backed Supreme Court ruled in favor of unlimited campaign contributions from Republican-dominated corporations? No, we look at the so-called man in the empty chair, projecting onto him comments he’s never made because it’s good for a laugh. And we continue consuming and consuming – food, oil, computers – growing fat and short of breath beneath the smoke and cathode glare. Our choices are growing increasingly limited, on the one hand an empty shirt who’s a stand-in for corporate America, on the other an appeaser who can’t seem to get his enemies to sign a truce. Perhaps the Hollywood star and the actor really showed us the way after all. We can either pretend to see boogeyman while rambling crankily or we can act like we care about pulling together and go on as if our best values still matter. I think the choice is obvious. But, of course, I’m just another pulphead.
Yes, I'm outgunned. Literally. Because as my side quietly awaits the end, another foresees apocalypse of a more traditional sort. It feels cheated of the new American Dream, not the one where you define yourself by your accomplishment, but by the number of cars you own and women you acquire. That side rises up in movie theaters, bearing arms, a dark knight bent on vengeance. Will it win? Who can say? All I know is that the curtain seems to be falling, and the end coming either with a whimper or a bang.