Letters at 3AM

Vagrants amidst the plenty

Letters at 3AM
Illustration By Jason Stout

"Do you know what's right, what's wrong? Somehow, somewhere, a beautiful simple thing, a single morality, a single set of standards, was smashed like an atom into 10 million pieces. And now – now what's right for a man can be wrong for his business, what's right for his business can be wrong for his country, and what's right for his country can be wrong for the world."

Those words describe many a paradox of our post-9/11 era, so it may surprise you to learn they were written in 1962, by Stirling Silliphant, for a TV series called Route 66.

The premise of Route 66 was simple: Two young men drive from place to place across the United States in search of adventure, romance, and, as they often say, "the truth." On their way they meet farmers and magnates, strippers and orphans, librarians and boxers, jazz musicians and fishermen, factory guys and college kids, all with one thing in common: They're desperate, they've come to the edge of what society offers, and they too search for new truths to live by. (It's remarkable as you watch these travelers go from location to location – Maine, St. Louis, Philly, Nevada, Arizona, Cleveland, Texas, Washington – that everywhere they found work as day laborers in manufacturing or farming, and not a McDonald's in sight. It was still that kind of country.) Yet in 1962 what we call "the Sixties" hadn't yet begun; this was still the world of the Fifties. Divorce was still relatively rare, public education still relatively good, and working people could still afford to buy a home. It was still against the law in many states for African-Americans to eat at the same counter, or share a classroom, with Anglos. Homosexuality was still against the law. It would be several years before "women's liberation" became a strong movement. Vietnam was two years from heating up. John Kennedy was president. Yet something unnerving simmered beneath the surface of America. Something was about to burst. Stirling Silliphant sensed and expressed that – and on a hit Friday-night CBS show, of all places.

Silliphant, 1962, Route 66: "What makes you think human nature is one way and no other way, rules carved into stone, easy to follow? I'll tell you about the rules: They're written on the wind." And: "In 80 years we've come from Edison's light bulbs to 100-megaton sunbursts, but in our understanding of our personal motives we're still in the horse-and-buggy era." And: "We are a species that can protect itself against everything except each other." And: "We have to become lost before we can find ourselves. That sort of map you make up as you go along." And this, a heart-cry all Stirling's truth-seekers might have uttered: "I am speaking to you as a vagrant amidst the plenty."

Now many are vagrants amidst the plenty. Stirling, writing of the desperate few, now resonates with the desperate many – for desperation has become epidemic. We know too well that the rules are not only written on the wind but have been swept away upon that wind, with nothing to replace them but the sound and fury of the storm. We have become lost, we have no maps, we are making it up as we go along.

This is the state in which we approach the most pivotal election since Lincoln's – and the work of Stirling Silliphant comes to mind because he shows that our present situation was not created by 9/11 but has been brewing for a long time. We've come to a brink we were bound for. (Still, the Founders might have been pleased that our turning point is to be decided by election.)

Elections ride upon two essential concerns: issues and identity.

The issues of 2004 are clear, if complicated: economics, war, terror, health, the nature of family, the inconstancy of the present and the fragility of the future. It is easy to forget, in our mean atmosphere, that there are honorable positions on all sides and that those who disagree with us are not our enemies but are fellow sharers in a swirling world, trying to make sense of it as best they can, as we are. Frightened, as we are. Desperate, as we are. The very shrillness of the stated beliefs of many is evidence that they doubt more than they believe, for they must be shrill to drown out the voices of their fearful unadmitted doubt. The issues of our time are not immune to reason – but the question of identity probably is: Who are we now? Whom will we be?

The question of identity rides on another question: Why, in spite of a disastrous economic and foreign policy record, does George W. Bush appeal deeply to nearly half our population – people largely as well-meaning and desirous of peace as the other half?

The answer is: Bush feigns certainty. It is his entire appeal. That is why he cannot admit a mistake, even when reversing policy (as he's often done). He presents himself as a man who never questions, never doubts – a man for whom the sea change of the Sixties, already evident to Stirling Silliphant by 1962, never happened. As Steve Erickson has written, Bush wants to repeal not only the Sixties but the Enlightenment. Science must be wrong if it posits evolution and global warming – for evolution means that the Creation is never finished, is never complete, is never finally decided, is never certain; and global warming means that Nature has a kind of will that may be at odds with humanity's will, with Bush's will. The tempestuous 21st century must bend to his will, at any cost – he will walk upon its waters and calm the storm with a word. That grandiose and pathetic fantasy is his true election promise.

The deeper question is: Why is this stance – a literal attack upon reality – so appealing?

It is appealing precisely because it is an attack upon reality. That's why proofs of the facts have little impact on Bush devotees. For it is these very facts that they want denied, attacked, and destroyed. Many are poorly educated, without the skills or sensibilities for success in the 21st century; many others, affluent and educated, cannot bear the truth stated so clearly by Silliphant four decades ago, that what is good for a man's business may be wrong for his country and what is good for his country may be wrong for the world – for they cannot bear the consequences of admitting that their good comes at the expense of another's harm. And many are threatened to their core by what science uncovers every new day. Underneath it all, Bush promises success to the ignorant, conviction to the confused, and innocence to the affluent. That these promises are delusions is precisely their strength. He will delude you and you'll love it – that's his platform. Nothing is necessary to the defense of delusions but further delusions, and delusions can be easily (and cynically) manufactured. To encounter reality is a different matter and requires what the thwarted are not capable of and what the greedy cannot accept: the admission that, as Norman Mailer once put it, "either we must grow or pay more for remaining the same."

Bush's devotees live in terror of being left behind or made irrelevant by the forces of the 21st century. This has little to do with issues and everything to do with identity. Bush promises that a sense of identity, which was already barely tenable in 1962, will be more than adequate for 2004, 2005, 2025. It is this promise that many will vote for. Passionately. Desperately.

Which means that in this election no less than the identity of the United States of America – as a force, as a symbol, and as a place to live – is at stake. If Bush wins, the power of the United States will be committed to the delusional. There is no freedom in delusion, and for that reason, more than for any machinations of power, America's freedoms will erode and die. As our Founders knew, freedom requires a passionate commitment to the search for truth – knowing always that each truth opens up new questions that make a further search necessary. So they created that most flexible of documents, the Constitution, building into it safeguards against any one faction's truth becoming hard and fast and dominating. But delusion cannot tolerate checks and balances. Thus the Constitution itself becomes the enemy of Bush and his devotees.

The basic issue is: Can America, finally, grow up? Can America cease its adolescent insistence on a purity that never was and cannot be? Can America face a murky reality in which choices are always double-edged and the good always brings with it a bit of bad, the bad a bit of good? Or will we, as a people, try to walk on water – and, even as we sink and drown, vagrants amidst the plenty, gurgle the conviction that we were right all along?

Kerry, however flawed, tries to face a real world. Bush (like Nader) tries to make reality warp to his delusions. This election will be decided on a question of identity: Will we, as a nation, choose the consistency of delusion? Or are there enough of us willing to face the irrationality of the real? end story

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Sterling Silliphant, George W. Bush, Route 66

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