Shooting the Cactus, Pissing in Each Other’s Mouths: A Story from the American Desert

    By Christopher Ketcham

    “I meant no harm. I most truly did not. But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got. I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads. I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads. And I biggered my money, which everyone needs.”
    — “The Lorax,” Dr. Seuss

    Emerging in May on my 33rd birthday from heat, aloneness, sun, air, light, rock, and the warm smooth starry night of southeastern Utah, I fly home to New York via Phoenix and then Las Vegas, canyon-jumping in little planes. Unused to human company, artificial noise, confined spaces, the barking of loudspeakers, the masses of fake tits boarding the plane for Vegas, I come into Phoenix and wait on many lines in a semi-moronic state. Yesterday, I climbed the Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park. The Furnace, so named not for its heat but for the crimson it glows in the setting sun, is a maze of fins and slots and pinnacles carved of the melodious red sandstone — sculptures of 200 million years of work by wind and rain. A labyrinth of silence and immensity, its washes are gardens: dunes glued by the spreading roots of pinyon pine and by the wild green hair of Mormon tea and by cliffrose smelling of honey.Then there’s Phoenix and Las Vegas. Whereas it might be said that every stone and tree and slot and dune in the Fiery Furnace has a purpose — what that is, who knows, who cares — and was meant to be, the twin metropolises of the southwest thrive where no city was meant to be, where God told the traveler not to stop (there is no water here, fool, only rock) and humanity in its inexhaustible hubris instead founded Babylon. By some estimates, Phoenix and Las Vegas each swallow the desert at an acre an hour in a marvel of unsustainable growth. Phoenix especially: a city so gripped by the slow suicide of the development monomania that in the midst of the worst-ever drought in the recorded history of the West, as ancient aquifers suck dry, officials hand out fines for not watering the lawn. Brown grass is bad for a real estate bubble.

    I first got to know Phoenix on Christmas Day, 2003. There was no sun in the city that morning, which made the desert palms look fake, like a movie set. My friend Christine Nucci, with whom I was staying, was leaving town forever, packing big black suitcases in her little apartment. Her 74-year-old mother was helping. Her boyfriend, Brian Mahoney, sat in a metal stacking chair and said in his Brooklyn accent, “I don’t know. Don’t feel so good. Dizzy. Real dizzy.” On Thanksgiving, three weeks earlier, he nearly died from a sudden affliction, diabetes, that caused a blood clot in his left leg, which had to be opened up and carved out, with skin grafted back on in raw red squares. He’d been in the hospital until a few days ago. Now Christine stared off the balcony at the sunless desert, chain-smoking. “Can you believe this? I live here for fuckin’ six years, I don’t see a cloud, and Christmas Day complete overcast. What a town. What a mess.” Then she burst into frantic activity.

    Her mother, Eleanor, stood a moment more on the balcony and watched the deflated sky and the sprawl and the highway and the empty lanes. No traffic jams yet. A black boy with a new toy gun sprayed the quadrangle yard on which the apartments opened, blasting the green lawn, which was falsely green, watered absurdly. This was a desert, after all. The boy played alone, realized it, stopped spraying the bullets, and stood there looking as if the fight had been suddenly hoovered out the top of his little head. Then in a weeping willow, the birds chattered, sounding like pieces of pottery clicking. The willow, like the lawn, was an alien form, grown here against the will of the land. No one awoke or spoke in the apartments, except the boy. “It just doesn’t look like Christmas at all,” Eleanor said to Brian, who shifted weight from leg to leg, and shuffled when he walked. His face was sallow and thin. When he almost died, he told me, “There were all these people in the operating room and I wanted to scream out and tell ’em what was happening, but you know that feeling when you’re powerless, you’re paralyzed, you open your mouth but nothin’ comes out?”

    Eleanor Frick-Nucci spoke to her four-year-old grandson over a cellphone and said, “Merry Christmas, darling.” She stared at the palm trees that lined the false lake where no one was walking. The connection was bad, and she had to yell. Later she said, “On Christmas Eve, I usually stay at my son’s house, in Florida, and I’m there to watch the kids open their gifts. It’s nice.” Then she said, “My son married into a big Italian family. They have a feast, everyone gathers. They have lobster tails and crab meat and all sorts of good things. They do this for a whole day.”

    Eleanor and Christine and Brian hated Phoenix. “If this is America, America is a fuckin’ dump. What a sick, sick, sick place,” Christine said, waving her arm, by which, apparently, she meant everything in sight. “Gawd, I can’t wait to get back to Montague Street. Eat good food. Live good life. I don’t even know where to get food around here. Six years, and there’s nothing good to eat. Ha, ha, I’ll be back in Brooklyn before you, buddy, eating a big cold-cut sandwich at Lassen & Hennings on Montague Street.”

    On Christmas Eve we tried to find food. Nucci was desperately hungry, and so was Brian, who waited at the motel, sick. Eleanor sat in the back seat falling asleep in the warm sun. First we went to a glorified box called Swenson’s, which closed at exactly three p.m. It happened to be one minute after three. Nucci threw up her hands and cursed. We drove in the maze of malls and road and got lost. Nucci suddenly grabbed my arm: “Turn here!” We pulled up to a sandwich place in a strip mall. A server was stacking outdoor tables and told us cheerily, “Uhp. Just closed.”

    “You bastids!” cried Nucci, smashing the dash with her palm. She scanned the horizon like a wounded animal. “Bastids! Whole town of bastids! Just keep driving, Chris. We’ll find something. Or maybe we won’t. Maybe we won’t find anything at all. Maybe we’ll starve to death in this car driving around in circles. This is what happens when you leave Brooklyn,” she said. “Gawd, I just wanna get out of here alive. Get Brian better. Poor guy. I can’t believe the priest was gonna be called. Good grief, they told me he was a goner. Never leave Brooklyn, Chris.” To pass the time, I asked about her students at Arizona State University. “My students? Redneck idiots. These people are going to be teachers next year and they don’t know that Phoenix has water problems. I had one girl ask me, ‘Oh, you’re from Brooklyn! What does a Jew look like?’ Savages. God help Phoenix.”

    As we drove in circles, Christine started talking about prehistoric disasters, about the Hohokam Indians who once farmed Phoenix, irrigating the desert. They called it the Valley of the Sun. For a thousand years in the Valley of the Sun they built canals and watered the sand and thrived in balance with the land, a sort of Arizona Maya. Then, around the year 1400, the Hohokam disappeared. No one knows why.

    “Hohokam means ‘the people who have gone away,'” Christine said. She shrugged and pointed with her chin at the stripmalls on an endless loop out the window, the throwaway homes, the highways now clogging, the empty streets where no one was walking on Christmas Day. She was reacting, in effect, to the waste and anomie and profligacy of the quintessential American habitat made all the more sinful and strange planted in the scarcity of the desert. “Six years ago when I first came here, I thought there was hope for this place,” she tells me. “Not anymore. I watched the county government knock down hundred-year-old cactus to pave cheap tract homes. One guy was clearing his land by shooting at a cactus and it fell and killed him. God help Phoenix.”

    Now from the plane leaving the city I looked down over the martian peaks of the Superstition Wilderness, which until recently stood remote from the sprawl. The Superstitions are deadly in summer, volcanic and hoodooed, red as rust, with gardens of mesquite and saguaro and arroyos that rush briefly in summer monsoon. In the distance, crawling toward the crags, a smear of lime-green: golf courses that should never be and cannot remain. They feed a golf community, homes with more green smears, sprinkled lawns, dogs in fern yards. Sewers extend along roads that lead nowhere, waiting for the people to come. From this wide vantage as night falls, one can’t help but see the fool’s gold hope in the city’s mighty twinkling. Geographically, Phoenix now spreads farther and wider than even the gorged sprawl of Los Angeles.

    The “Growth Lobby,” as Nucci called it, insures this is nowhere near an end. The bankers, mortgage lenders, construction companies, developers, speculators, the real estate agents and the pourers of concrete stack the legislatures and the local community groups, which abdicate land-use planning in favor of growth and more growth. Local governments insure low- or zero-impact costs, which saddles the taxpayer with the water and sewer and electric lines, the schools, the funding of fire and police departments. The result is a systemic starvation of social services. In Phoenix, fire departments in their off-time offer cheap car-washes; the firemen stand outside the firehouses with signs begging motorists. Low-wage linear slums blight the cityscape, gangs thrive, crime explodes, income inequalities widen apace. The rich disappear into the next big development on the fringe, seeking the last open spaces. Meanwhile, there is drought and more drought, seven years and counting, and Phoenix in 2003 was the only major Western city to not impose mandatory water-use restrictions. Instead, desperate Arizona water managers, in the grip of the same old madness (grow or die!), now envision using “treated effluent” — shit and piss water chemically cleaned up for drinking and bathing. (I say cut out the middle-man and have the good citizens piss in each other’s mouths.)

    Weather will fortunately call a halt to this tragedy. The American West may be entering a prolonged drought cycle unlike any seen in recent history. According to the New York Times, researchers who have studied tree rings and ocean temperatures for drought patterns over the last 800 years are finding evidence “that the relatively wet weather across much of the West during the 20th century was a fluke.” The Times cited experts predicting that energy production from Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam, feeding the air conditioners and slot machines of Phoenix and Las Vegas, will come to a halt by 2007 if conditions remain unchanged and the waters recede and Glen Canyon becomes again a canyon. In words that should ring like funeral bells, the Times concludes that “the development of the modern urbanized West — one of the biggest growth spurts in the nation’s history — may have been based on a colossal miscalculation.” That miscalculation is perhaps paradigmatic in Phoenix, but the monster is being replicated everywhere throughout the desert (as for example, in Las Vegas, in 2005 America’s fastest growing city). As a respected urban planning magazine describes it, the pattern is typified by “disregard for a water ethic, fragmented local government that is subservient to corporate planning, lack of public space, failure to account for conservation, disregard of zoning for natural disasters, dispersed land-use, dictatorship of the automobile, and acceptance of racial and economic inequality.”

    In 2001, Arizona environmentalists made a hearty effort to right the course, with a ballot referendum called the Citizens Growth Management Initiative. CGMI, or Proposition 202, would have instituted the basic infrastructure of rational land use planning — community review and impact studies, public meetings and public votes — but it was resoundingly defeated following a $4 million ad campaign, a Growth Lobby tour-de-force, that predicted economic and social disaster but was largely a mosh of half-truths and outright lies. One television spot showed a family stranded in their desert home using a Port-o-San, a bratty child crying up to hollow-eyed parents, “It’s not fair.” Other tricksters purchased the URL to post anti-202 propaganda. A $50,000 study from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, Bank One and Bank of America doomed the state to a loss of 1.2 million jobs over 12 years if the initiative passed. Within a week, the chamber admitted its ballyhooed press release was way off — that in fact a potential 210,000 new jobs might not materialize.

    The corrections made little difference, for the damage in the public mind was done. Early polls showed CGMI had the support of roughly 70 percent of voters, then it dropped to 62 percent, and by the time the ballots were counted, the numbers had reversed: 70 percent of Arizonans had voted against CGMI. Newspapers said the flip-flop was “unprecedented” in Arizona polling history.

    Oh well. My piss awaits their thirst. A generous offer. Not good enough, however. The grow-or-die maniacs want a piece of sweet and holy places like the Fiery Furnace, too. As I write these words, an energy exploration company is building a derrick on land just outside Arches National Park, looking for cheap natural gas. The derrick will extend 14,000 feet into the earth, and will likely rise a hundred feet into the air, if not higher. It will be visible from many vantages in Arches. In the silence of the Fiery Furnace, you might even be able to hear its labors, the sound of industry carried on the wind.

    Bonobolicious, or The Bonobable Tale of the Bonobo Monkey (A Strip-club Crack-up in Three Acts)

    By Christopher Ketcham

    SCENE: Said the rat-faced drunk in the strip club: “You know, if I wasn’t lucky enough to be a human being, say, if I was a Bonobo monkey, I’d be trying to screw you up the ass right now.”

    He paused. I looked at him trying to smile.

    “Yeah, I’d be trying to fuck you in the ass right now, in the middle of the floor,” he continued. “How the hell would you like it if I was sittin’ here trying to fuck you in the ass? I’m sittin’ here and I just — I just try to bend your ass over — fuck ya? How the hell would you like that?”

    I didn’t answer. I was scared of him. Days before, the man explained, he had found his five-year-old daughter watching a Nature special on the Bonobo monkeys, and it made him sick. The Bonobo, for those who don’t know, is a West African primate that has sex practically all the time, whenever and with whomever it can. Bonobos know no gender or incest boundaries when it comes to the dirty deed: mothers and fathers pair with their children, as do sisters with brothers, sisters with sisters and brothers with brothers. They are a matriarchal society, and observers note with some interest that there is absolutely no violence among them. They are the only non-aggressive primate group, as well as the only animal that masturbates for pleasure.

    “You know Bonobo moms have sex with their kids right after they’re born?” said Bonobo, silly with drink. He grimaced across the stage at the Baby Doll Lounge. The Baby Doll, before it was forced out of business by the puritans running New York today, was a gaunt, homely rectangle off White and Church streets in Tribeca. It had a minimally stocked liquor shelf, red ceilings, black walls, and warped funny mirrors along the dancers’ stage, which was staple-carpeted unevenly, as if the soused Bonobo had set them up. A girl in dyed-red hair, with a forty-year-old face and the perky body of a 17-year-old, nibbled her fingers over the tatty carpeting. The age difference made me think of some R. Crumb twist on Frankenstein: old head that knows the moves on a new body that can do them.

    “I find my kid watching this stuff on Channel 13,” continues Bonobo. “Graphic stuff. And my little daughter’s watching these monkeys bang away at each other.”

    “Bonobo’s a funny word,” I said.

    “Fucking Bonobo.”

    I started thinking up variations. “Bonobable” for something honorable and good; “to bonobe,” to have sex, a variation on “to bone”; “bonobalicious,” the superlative of bonobable.

    “When I saw that, I felt like killing those Bonobos,” said Bonobo. A stripper approached at his dollar beck, poking her packed bra at his forehead. “No, baby, I wanna go downtown.”


    “They’re repulsive. They’re really repulsive. They’re everything we’re not,” he said. “What really bothers me is my five-year-old is watching this stuff. It’s just disgusting. Nature. Nature is disgusting.”

    SCENE: the safaried men, in jungle khakis, on elephants, the Hannibal men with cheek-scars – one with pussing eyes and a raging fever being carried in a stretcher. Still others, jawing a meager ration with eyes cocked at dripping leaves; rain-dread and malarial yellow-eye; slave-men lowing, tea being set in the mosques of netted tents at night. The drizzling of fires going out, gew-gaws of stars, the rhapsodic sounding and thumping of a beast somewhere afar. Bloody sacks humped on flat rocks – the porters clicking with the cricket, knowing something is afoot, at the least that a long night is falling.

    He imagined this as she lap-danced. Her breasts were enormous, soft and fake. She could still squeeze milk from them, which he had not thought possible after such a knifing. “How kin ya still gi’ milk?” he asked.

    “I just give birth four months,” she said.

    The Bonobo Hunt would last months, he decided after the lap dance. First, sickness among the men, and spawning mutiny, and loathing for the natives, and abuse. “Where are the Bonobo?” asked the strapping hook-nosed men with green teeth and faces burnt.

    Went the drums: “Wedonobonobo wedonobonobo wedonobonobo.” Civilized men who are really in nature, who have no repair but wits and sweat, end up hating nature. First of all, nature is indifferent. We die, it goes on. Wand of cycles the Romantic pulls from felt hat: triad of banalities – sea, sex and sun, for example.

    Nature is quite boring, actually, repetitious, modulated by a hugely organized caprice, the weather, which men take to be Providence – which viewed from the fireplace with the bed-bug lady lover seems the honeymoon suite. Nature is really something awful, giant stomach, very intestinal. This writer remembers when he broke his leg in the wilderness, on the Green River, which feeds the Colorado, in a desert canyon with no option but down-river to Lake Powell. He remembers the laughter of the canyons when, balancing on an oar to take a dump, he fell in the warm turd, and just lay there for awhile, ‘cause it was warm and his leg was getting cold.

    Then, a fist of town out of mud: they see it many miles away, with its strings of smoke over the hills. They proceed carefully, knowing the region is full of tribal enmities, hatred of the white man, and many small bugs. One such bug, a few unfortunates in the party learn, lays its eggs in human flesh: a type of spider, they learn, after the newborns hatched from Messr. Barnabus’ calf. The bite innocuous at first: a splotchy fret of red surrounding two bloody, squinting eyes where the teeth delved. Barnabus, organizer and most impassioned of the Hunt, put it aside and told no one, as none of the symptoms of heavy poisoning followed. And told no one when the bite swelled; he swathed it in bandages; for the pain, he shot a cylinder of morphine daily. And still told no one; and feared, for reasons he knew not, to remove the bandages. For the wrap seemed to grow, to bulge outward a little bit daily, and the pain itched up his leg into his spine, gave him headaches, hot flashes. Nights he dreamed of many legs hauling on his tongue, and he awoke thinking they were ants. Which did not bother him, mind you, Barnabus being a tough guy, of generous muscle.

    Till one day, at break in a cool valley stream, under the jungle shade, he removed the bandages. The flesh around the wound had grown very soft, pale as chiffon, almost transparent; but the wrack the wound had put on his spine prevented him bending over for closer inspection. He called to a porter. “You,” he said in the native tongue, “take a look at this, will you?” The porter came up, looked at the leg, and backed off with fear in his eyes. “You give birth,” he said.

    Feeling the cool, the bandages removed, the eggs had begun to hatch. The flesh crawled a moment. Then his leg exploded in pain; the flesh around the midpoint of the calf began to ripple, like a calm sea; it shuddered, lay still.

    Messr. Barnabus got angry. “What the hell is going on?” He stood up. Suddenly, the flesh popped, and out came a flicking leg.

    The porters got excited, but kept their distance. “Bwana giving birth,” they shouted.

    SCENE: half-naked woman in rags with a pair of bent glasses hanging off her putty-shaped nose, running amok among the Bonobo hoards, who are screeching and oooing, alternately screwing each other and looking coy. The woman, a college professor who teaches women’s studies and anthropology, finds a small garrison of the wretched beasts fingering a solemn mother about to give birth; the tiny, mucusey head pumps forth from her fat yam-colored cunt. Nearby, a brace of young, frail Bonobo sit stupidly on a log. The woman begins to give orders. She has perfected the means of command, a Morse-Twat Code: she effects it by falling on hands and knees, raking the sky with her hindquarters, and dipping a dildo in her vagina, and by varying depths, speed changes, and angles of entry she communicates to the massing Bonobo the threat peering out of the jungle. “It is Man! He is coming to destroy your happiness!” cries the Dildo, now slamming most eloquently in her anus. “He would destroy all Nature if he could. You! Commandeer that trunk! You! Get off her, and arm yourself with this twig! You! Raise your thumbnail! Defend yourselves against Man!”

    By this time, the Bonobos are muttering and drooling with interest. They understand the orders, the threat, their imminent destruction, but find much more compelling this silvery bar winking with sunlight out of her bonobable ass. “It is bonobalicious!” says one, as a Troubadour hacks his arm off.

    “We must bonobe her,” says another, moving to mount the young anthropologist when an elephant gun shears him in half. “Take her to Bonobalopolous,” cries a third, but as this fair city was in the midst of being overrun, the anthropologist suddenly found herself the object of affection of several dozen very randy Bonobo males. It had not been her plan.

    In fact, so whacked was her plan that invading Man, bristling with machetes and shotguns and bloody to the gills with slaughter, saw this impromptu orgy – and joined in. Man and Bonobo boffed side by side, even taking turns with courteous bows. Once the men had finished, they slaughtered every last child of the ancient tribe, and the bonobos were no more.

    SCENE: They were finished. The money lay on the table: two hundred-dollar bills, sweat-heavy and crumpled on a plastic poker table in a corner of the room. He looked at her closely, affecting the engaged eyes of a man in love.

    “Yeah, alright,” she said.

    “Shh,” he said, fearing the fat black man outside the door. “Could I…just look at your teeth a second?”

    “My teeth are fake. Fuck off.”

    He pulled out a fifty.

    “Okay, look at my teeth.”

    Three, five, seven, ten – he counted ten caps. They were porcelain white, toilet white he suddenly thought. Your teeth are toilet white. How many hours did it take in the chair to make those teeth. How much money. He looked closer at the gums: they were red, almost bleeding. The cap-edges dug into the sensitive gum.

    “Your gums are bleeding,” he said finally.

    “Yup,” she said.


    A Day in the Life of the Dick Cheney Presidency

    By Christopher Ketcham

    Recent events in the career of our outdoorsman vice-president recall an encounter I had with the VP several years ago. It was during the short-lived Dick Cheney presidency on Saturday July 29, 2002. On the dawn of the day of the Cheney ascendancy, the day on which at an unknown hour George Bush would be explored for ass polyps and sedated into a babbling stupor and power would be briefly transferred to Mr. Cheney for the sake of “national security,” I was passed out very drunk lying on a pile of sand and rubble at the edge of a broken-down pier off Buttermilk Channel, which is part of Lower New York Bay. Buttermilk Channel was so named for the cows that 250 years ago used to cross the mud-flats at low-tide, trundling their teats along the channel floor.

    A fisherman came to the shore, a large narrow-eyed balding man in gaiters. At that point, I was busy trying to drag a steamer trunk floating in the surf up the rubble bank and into the street by the pier. “Hey, man, morning,” I said cheerily, “you give me a hand here a sec?” The man said nothing. He looked at me like I was a dog-fish: you know how the ugly and inedible dog-fish barks when it gets beached?

    I figured what I had actually said was “Ey ma’ awning oo eeve m’a han hersec?” I wanted to make contact; but I needed to enunciate. So I stared out to sea for a moment the way the man was staring out to sea. Profoundly. I concentrated. “Ketch th’ good fish here?” I finally said.

    “Not much,” the man said. He was a grim dude.

    “Dick Che’y’s president t’day, y’know?” I said, and proceeded to tell him about the polyps and how the sand-niggers would use this moment of weakness to hit us all over the country. I thought this was hilarious and belly-laughed and went into a coughing fit, the guttural seeing-stars kind.

    The man said nothing. I kept tugging at the steamer and staring out to sea, then staring at the fisherman, who would alternately fade into a blur and then seem to shed a preternatural light. “Poison fish in th’ bay,” I said. “Pol’ooshin. You eat ‘em?” The man grunted and went about casting his line.

    I got back to work; I pulled at the trunk like a weakened monkey and got my shoes squishy-wet in the oily water. “Diiiiick. Cheney,” I said.

    “Jesus,” the man said. He shook his head.

    I was having a hard time with that trunk. It was huge and heavy and waterlogged and felt like it was full of rocks. But it was a beauty, an art-piece, with false-gold clasps and carven whales on its sides. I hauled the trunk a few inches over the shattered masonry, making a godawful clatter, and every so often I looked up at the fisherman with tears in my eyes (I was very happy about the trunk).

    Having at last gotten it out of the surf, I sat down and after two minutes of silence and the sea lapping, I turned to the man and said, “We split the treasure, whattaya say?”

    “Jesus,” the man muttered.

    I gave the trunk a real go; put my weight into it, both hands on the leather strap. “C’mon, DICK,” I barked. “’his steamer trunk ‘s coming wi’ ME!” I dragged and heaved and cursed, and got it halfway up the rocky bank, my feet slipping, but the wet strap broke and I flew backwards into sharp jutting rocks and yowled in pain.

    “Oh! Gimme a fuckin’ break, will ya?” the fisherman now cried out, casting at me a hateful snarled look. “Jesus! Je-sus! Take your steamer trunk and shove it up your ass!”

    “But I can’t carry ‘his ‘hing alone, man,” I cried. “I can’t do it!” And now the guy moved off a little ways along the pier, enough distance to make it clear that there were miles between us.

    So this is how it would be with Dick Cheney president. A lonely and savage world: every man for himself. No pity for us poor drunkards. Not even a little hand for a steamer trunk full of treasure. Not even some friendly banter.

    The Dick Cheney Presidency went badly after that. The sun rose high and white; fear and confusion behind the wheel of my car. Had a six-minute drive home, but I knew the police would get me this soused – straight to jail. Kept stalling out in intersections, the car jumping then drifting; very bright blurry streets, like heavy rain in klieg lights. Paranoia. Dick is just the kind of guy to get my license plate and call the cops with his cellphone and make a TIPS report, he left here drunk, officer, he had seaweed on his leg. That put the fear in me – he would do it, Dick would. I parked the car in a quiet lane and hid in the backseat like a sick cat and passed out. Woke up four hours later, refreshed, and went back to get the trunk. Dick Cheney was gone. I pulled that bastard trunk up to the road and opened it. And Dick, you know what I found among the sea-garbage and the stones? You won’t believe it: A fish-head. A rotten little fish-head with its mouth open.

    (Originally published in “Notes from Sept. 11: Poems and Stories,” by Christopher Ketcham)


    Why We Don’t Fight: Ike, Henry Miller and the America that Never Was

    By Christopher Ketcham

    Petra and I left “Why We Fight,” the Eugene Jarecki film, in tears. It’s because we are ashamed, I offered. The shame that comes to any thinking American who realizes what is perpetrated in his name, on his behalf, for his benefit, across the planet. Dead bodies in a dusty street, mothers looking for children in rubble – as many as 100,000 Iraqis killed by the hand of the occupation in Iraq. The real question of “Why We Fight” is why we, citizens, do not fight the beast we see clearly before us in the shape of the government that we continually re-elect, that kills people for profit.

    There was no shock in the facts of the film. We knew about Eisenhower’s warning of the perils of a “military-industrial complex” unanchored from the democracy, a phrase Ike had originally written as “military-industrial-congressional complex” – homegrown axis of evil – but which he edited, probably for reasons of dishonest decorum, in delivering that prophetic farewell address of 1961:

    “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel—”

    There the problems start. An alert and knowledgeable citizenry? This we knew too.

    We knew that our Congress was a bevy of bought whores, every one of them in some manner or another purchased by a massive armaments industry funded to the tune of $400 billion a year, 52 percent of federal spending, a vast homicidal loopback machine that helps keep the economy chugging and incumbents in office, keeps America dominant, prosperous, stepping on other nation’s faces. We knew that systemically, in the large order of American affairs, our society has been brutalized and sickened by the influence of the military-industrial-congressional complex. We knew that the tragedy of Iraq is symptom and not cause: it is the direct result of a society that is diseased with militarism and burdened by an entire infrastructure built for war. Which is to say, a society built for murder, a psychopathic society.

    I think we were crying, however, not because we were sad for the victims in other countries but because we still believed in American exceptionalism – in short, we were, like true Americans, navel-gazing. We believed that America as a proud people was better than the fat, addicted, indulgent, lazy, stupid, amoral, sheepish, intolerant, wishful, prudish, uncultured, uninstructed, and incurious creature it had become. Of all the western democracies, near dead last in voter turn-out, last in health care, last in education, highest in homicide and suicide rates, mortality, STDs among juveniles, youth pregnancy, abortion and divorce. Americans, in keeping with their degenerate morals, wreak one-quarter of the damage to the planetary ecosphere every day with their stupid indulgence. Such a population of overgrown infants deserves a government built for mania overseas, the natural extension of a child on a rampage.

    We hope, we want to hope that it was not always thus. I read Henry Miller’s “Air-Conditioned Nightmare,” a travelogue of Miller’s ten thousand miles criss-crossing the fair fields and deserts and mountains of the great country. The book was written in five years from 1939 to 1945. Here’s what Miller has to say of his native land after being chased out of France by Nazism: “We are accustomed to think of ourselves as an emancipated people; we say that we are democratic, liberty-loving, free of prejudice and hatred….Actually we are a vulgar, pushing mob whose passions are easily mobilized by demagogues, newspaper men, religious quacks, agitators and such like. To call this a society of free peoples is blasphemous. What have we to offer the world beside the superabundant loot which we recklessly plunder from the earth under [the] delusion that this insane activity represents progress and enlightenment?” In the 61 years since Miller published those words in acid, what has changed? Superabundant loot? Check. Reckless plundering? Check, a hundred times over. The demagogues and newspaper men and agitators and religious quacks mobilized us for the war in Iraq; we fell into the trap like blindered hogs. We are told by our mendacious government that Iran is now a problem, an imminent threat, a danger. And a majority of Americans believe it. George W. Bush asserts that he is free to violate the 4th Amendment, commit high crimes and treason against the sacrosanct laws of the country. He believes that a “state of war” – a figment of war – provides him extralegal powers of governance. The purchased Congress doesn’t much bridle at this extraordinary criminality. Instead, we are told by our lawmakers to trust the White House, which has for its only manufacture of consequence a steady stream of well-wrought lies designed, as in all American affairs, along the lines of product placement. So what has changed? I read Upton Sinclair, “The Jungle,” 1906: “…you understood that you were environed by hostile powers that were trying to get your money, and who used all the virtues to bait their traps with…the great corporation which employed you lied to you, and lied to the whole country – from top to bottom it was nothing but one gigantic lie.”

    I read more Henry Miller, 1945: “Most of the young men of talent whom I have met in this country give one the impression of being somewhat demented,” he observes. “Why shouldn’t they? They are living amidst spiritual gorillas, living with food and drink maniacs, success mongers, gadget innovators, publicity hounds.” An exact description of my filthy home town, New York City, circa 2006. Nothing changes. We are a people whose nature is writ in mud. Only the mud remains.

    Self-loathing, shame, a wanting to hide one’s face – that’s what it’s like to be a thinking American today (and, apparently, in 1945, too). From self-hatred, and hatred and contempt for my country, comes a disappointment bordering on suicidal depression – the aftershocks of realization that the exceptionalist dream is just that.

    Severe neurosis, with signs of psychotic tendency – like the nation itself.

    My father, who I increasingly come to believe is a Black Panther disguised as a white man and traffic engineer, suggests an alternative in turning this malevolent energy outward: young men of my generation, he counsels, should train as snipers and systematically assassinate the captains of the defense industry and the elected officials who abet the predations of this industry. He goes a step further to the nuclear option: a small atomic device detonated on Capitol Hill while Congress is in full session, the cabinet in attendance too, as the country’s president delivers the state of the union. “That’ll get the message across,” my father, who is 66 years old and growing wilder at heart by the hour, tells me. It’s just talk and a lovely image – the swine of government, every one of them, burnt to a crisp – the kind of crazed “solution” that Americans, trained to accept psychopathology as a political means, like to revel in (coin-opposites of the great Islamist enemy?). But the system is larger than its figureheads. Industry prevails, not politicians.

    Hence the wanting to hysterically weep after seeing “Why We Fight,” for this is the tragic subtext of the film: America as the Founders envisioned it, as we citizens idealize it, is over. It’s finished. It’s gotten too big. Too many interests have gotten their greasy little hands on the treasure and they will not let go until the treasure’s all gone. Our system of governance is broken. Or perhaps it’s working perfectly, in the sense that an out-of-control locomotive in all its roaring and grinding of gears is working perfectly, at peak performance, as it approaches a cliff.

    “Go West, young man, they used to say,” Henry Miller wrote of his beloved America. “Today we have to say: Shoot yourself, young man, there is no hope for you.”


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