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Dylan’s Guillotine & Gordian’s Knot

by Gary Gordon
March 16, 2003

“…and if my thought-dreams could be seen
they’d probably put my head in a guillotine
but it’s all right Ma, it’s life and life only”
      --B. Dylan

These days it’s “Darkness at the break of noon”, and it’s tough to cut the knot in my stomach.

I just heard a CNN newscaster say Bush will speak tonight about our goal to “restore democracy to Iraq.”

Are we living in Bizarro World?

Years ago, late one night at the Atlanta Marriott downtown, where the ballplayers and hookers and rock stars and other post-1am cruisers roamed, Ira, Zim and I were discussing ideas for game-shows. As I recall it was Zim who came up with “Celebrity Suicide”. With a set like Hollywood Squares, featuring nine celebrities smiling at the audience, an announcer would bark, “Welcome to… Celebrity Suicide! Tonight, which one of our celebrities will commit suicide on the air? Will it be Paul Lynde? Charley Weaver?--

You get the idea.

And although in 1974 it was far-fetched, now…?

In the movie Time Bandits, the grand prize is a micro-wave oven. And, oh, by the way, they save the world from the Prince of Darkness. In the new movie, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, the grand prize is a refrigerator. And, oh, by the way, Chuck Barris may or may not have killed 33 people as a contract assassin for the CIA.

At the Table at the Farmers’ Market each week John asks, “Has Bush overstepped yet?”

And Jeff and I discuss whether or not proof is needed to believe Paul Wellstone’s fatal plane crash was not an accident.

It is risky business, living in cynical times. If you lose your optimism, your idealism, your hope and maintain only a cynical sense of humor, how in the world will you face the day and try to make it better?

The other night, after a long, convoluted Planning Commission meeting, Joe, Jerry Rubin and I went to eat and talk shifted from Main Street and the meeting to The War.

“What’re we gonna do about it?” Joe asked.

I suggested there were two choices: the Mario Savio throw-yourself-against-the-machine-in-order-to-stop-it approach, or the hard knocks, door-to-door grassroots organizing approach, leading toward electoral action. My history has been one of electoral action. I cannot claim victory.

Joe asked who was Mario Savio and the conversation spilled into a discussion about gaps in education, and how will the next generation be educated. As the hour grew late Joe suggested showing Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech outside on a wall over and over might help educate and mobilize people.

“They can’t kill King. He’s already dead,” someone said.

Mobilize them to do what, is the question.

The other night I watched “The Last Castle” with Robert Redford and as he played chess a troubling thought occurred to me: we are not even pawns.

Our job, it seems, is to be recruited as benign supporters of this war, or to be rejected and ignored as benign opponents.

Overcoming rejection-well, that’s life in The Industry in Southern California. But it’s not easy, as it requires joining an organized attempt at making the anti-war voice heard, and many of these organized attempts require a world view and embrace of a multitude of positions. I think a case against invading Iraq can be made whether or not one believes the US is imperialist and whether or not one has a particular position regarding Israel.

But it all tracks back to the central question: mobilize to do what? Support a recall petition against Diane Feinstein? Request real support like funds and/or office space and equipment from cities like Santa Monica and L.A. that have passed symbolic anti-war resolutions?

Or maybe this: mobilize people to be critical thinkers.

After all, manipulation is rampant. Perhaps epidemic. John Ashcroft and John Poindexter are Big Brother. Thought control is their watchword. But don’t take my word for it.

If I were the facilitator of a U.S. Reads program, I would recommend two books: Mark Twain’s The War Prayer and Larry Beinhart’s American Hero.

Beinhart’s American Hero is a complex novel on which the less-than-profound but somewhat amusing Wag The Dog was based. The novel, accompanied by numerous footnotes and the use of real names of members in the Bush I administration, posits that Desert Storm was created the way a movie is created, with a theme, a script, and other people’s money. Most of all, it was created so that not only would there be victory, but the American people would react the way they have in real wars (WWII) and to war movies and football games: Go, go, go! Win, win, win!

In a particularly clever passage, the producer of the “film”/war, John Lincoln Beagle, reviews on ten screens dozens and dozens of war movies, searching each for what it can teach him about the visuals that inspire patriotism and adrenalin, that make us overlook caution, reason and the D word-diplomacy.

He concludes that Hitler is the model for an enemy, but that that is less important than being hit with a sneak attack. After all, he reasons, Margaret Thatcher’s Falkland Islands war was a response to a sneak attack and required no Hitler. He concludes that Americans like dry, mechanized warfare-fighting the Germans, more than they like hot, wet warfare, like Vietnam. He discards the Vietnam War movies that were more or less emotionally accurate (Platoon, The Boys From Company C, Born On The Fourth of July) and embraces the revisionist Vietnam movies (Uncommon Valor, Chuck Norris MIA movies, and especially Rambo II, in which Rambo asks, “Do we get to win this time?”). But then he rejects Vietnam as a model altogether, realizing, in a key epiphany, that Vietnam was supposed to be World War II, the Sequel, but wasn’t. What is needed, he decides, is WWII-Two, the Video. And borrowing from a 1943 WWII movie, Bombardier, he drafts an outline that includes precision bombing.

Pilot: Put one in the smokestack.

Bombadier: Which one?

Pilot: Center one.

And it is done.

(Interestingly, this highly visual scene, dozens of war movies on ten screens, reviewed, selected, discussed for its manipulation and plot potential, was not in the movie, Wag The Dog. Hmmmm.)

Now we are about to witness WWII-3, the DVD.

This is an independent project that will be financed by the American taxpayer, although Bulgaria is part of the alliance, and their support should not be taken for granted. There is no sneak attack justification, but there is the projected fear of a sneak attack, and we’re back with the Hitler we had 12 years ago.

What does exist in this “film”/war that didn’t before is an original use of the timeclock device. The timeclock device in movies usually goes something like this: You have 48 hours to a) find the bomb, b) rescue the hostages, c) pay the money, d) find the money, e) figure out who is the spy-you get the idea.

What’s original about this version is this: we have heard repeated statements from the principals (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice) that “time is running out” without any explanation whatsoever as to why.

Along with this manipulation there is the time-honored use of religion. Even if you don’t support the war, you must support the troops, and if you support the troops you must pray for the troops. Anyone who doesn’t pray-well, in the immortal words of Ari Fleischer, “you’re either with us or against us.”

So it’s mandatory for critical thinkers to revive Mark Twain’s The War Prayer.

In this, Twain imagines a biblical-looking figure who enters a church, steps to the dais, and leads the congregation in a prayer so ugly in its truth about war that Twain made sure this work was not published until after he died.

“O Lord Our God, …help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded writhing in pain… help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire…”

We are not living in Bizarro World. We are living at a historical moment. Just as no nation devoted to democracy was created before the United States, no population has successfully restrained its own subverted democracy from becoming an empire; no population has achieved the restoration of democracy when it has grown into an empire.

It is an awesome task.

In my nightmares I am less than a pawn, living in the homeland of an empire that would reign destruction in the name of what I hold sacred; in my dreams my pen is a sword that can cut the Gordian knot and clear the way for the history train on its ride to truth and justice.


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