Last Saturday, I pondered America's soul.
I was in Portland, Maine, attending the annual Veterans For Peace convention, which featured Chris Hedges as its keynote speaker. Hedges, a Harvard divinity graduate who worked for many years as a war correspondent in El Salvador, Bosnia and other very violent places, gave a take-no-prisoners speech that prophesized the end of America as we know it.
The way Hedges saw it, the forces of militarized capitalism organized a coup in America, and that coup has been successful. The party's over and things are going to get a lot worse. He spoke of a land fallen into barbarism and a dictatorial state in power.
It's becoming pretty widely understood that America is in the midst of a major, epochal reckoning that does not seem to be letting up. Few in Portland would have disagreed with this. The issue was in the degree of unpleasantness one could stand as one contemplated the future. Some felt Hedges had come too close to hopelessness.
As Dylan said: "Somethin's happenin' here, and you don't know what it is " do you, Mister Jones."
After listening to Hedges and discussing his speech and other things over beers with veteran friends, I turned in for the night. I flipped on the massive wide-screen TV in my room and ended up watching 45-minutes of Glenn Beck's "Returning Honor Rally" recorded earlier on the apron of the Lincoln Memorial.
Beck was "like an Aztec priest ascending the Pyramid of Huitzilopochtli," according to James Howard Kuntsler on his blog Clusterfuck Nation. It was lots of tired Christian revivalist mush mixed in with some sensible family counseling. The country was going to hell and "God" was the answer.
There was no avoiding a comparison between Hedges and Beck. Both saw the nation in a deep crisis that would not be solved by the current politics. The difference was in what aspects of this "clusterfuck" they identified with and who they would stand and fight with when it all really hit the fan.
Hedges came down on the idea of local communities working cooperatively and providing for themselves, finding safety in numbers, in fellow human beings. Time and again, Beck came back to his "God" -- or, as Kuntsler put it, "what people resort to when they don't understand what is happening to them."
I have a healthy spiritual sensitivity for the mystery of life and nature. I see this as a fundamental human need to find answers for the unanswerable questions that reside at the outer edges of all human thought. As far as Beck's "God" goes, I'm an atheist.
Meeting Beck's God at a red light
The other day, as I waited for a red light to change, I encountered Beck's "God" on the back gate of a pickup truck driven by a guy in his thirties with a shaved head. The following verse was printed very professionally on the gate.
Bless those who serve and protect
The rights and freedoms of this great land.
Continue to bless this world through
Us (in Jesus' name). Amen.
Bring our troops home, Lord.
Addressed to the "Lord," the request in the first two stanzas presumably referred to our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the post-9/11 Global War On Terror. Dear God, bless our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan for protecting our "rights and freedoms."
This is one of our current core value delusions, that our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are somehow protecting our rights here at home. Given post-9/11 realities, all arguments for this fall apart quickly. Whatever we are in Iraq and Afghanistan for at any given time, it's not to protect our rights here. The only ones protecting our rights here at home are the people who insist on using those rights. Use "em or lose "em. It's actually the government and the military who seem to be whittling away at these rights. And Libertarian Tea Baggers make it clear this is not an exclusive left-wing view.
Then, God is asked to "bless this world" we live in. Finally, there's the part that truly baffles me: "Bring our troops home, Lord."