12 October 2008
Our America (1): American Psychos
Tonight I got caught after dark in the woods. The sun here is setting ever earlier each night as we slide towards winter, and after an unexpectedly enjoyable warm autumnal day, I returned to a favorite but relatively remote nature reserve for an evening promenade. A storm moved in suddenly, and grey clouds obscured the sunset, and before I knew it, dusk had become dark. Although I know this reserve rather well, and am a large man generally unafraid of the dark, the walk back out of the forest was more nerve-wracking than I would have expected, the gravel path obscured, trees and glades dim but full of noise and shadow, illuminated ghostly by occasional flashes of distant lightening.
In an odd version of whistling past the graveyard, I imagined myself a Native American, or a Witch, at home in the gloom, familiar and well trodden. But I was relieved to be back in the car, merging into the river of interstate light that led me back to the electric city, alive with streetlamps and horns and crowds on the sidewalk enjoying the humid interlude.
The allegorical meanings of such a moment for the last two weeks is perhaps too obvious, too ham-fisted in its urgency. But we seem, as a national body, to have become caught in the forest after dark, unpleasantly surprised as the light has faded as suddenly as someone putting out a lamp. This week I felt, in addition to the usual annoyance and frustration with American politics and society, for the first time real, palpable fear. In a drumbeat fed, admittedly, by an unhealthy addiction to Internet political commentary, the twin engines of financial doom and rabid rightist mobs seemed to overwhelm the potentialities of the coming national election, the chance for renewal, however mild, the metaphoric turning of a racial page onto, at the very least, someplace different (not, of course, the vaunted end of race).
This is, understatedly, a dangerous moment for our Republic. Few realize how close we came, in the Great Depression of the 20th century, to fascism, how close to the surface such sentiments were, how many Americans actually admired Hitler and Mussolini (and to a lesser extent, Stalin) for making the trains run on time, for their strength, their masculine heroism, their ideological vigor. But if it is anything the past two weeks have demonstrated rather strongly, it is the truism of what is old is new again, both in the inept Hooverian economic bungling (and, more optimistically, the potential for Rooseveltian reemergence) as well as in the ugly political spectre of race-baiting, our old friend and compatriot, our American fellow traveler.
On one hand, such socio-political cycles are exhausting to the historically informed, like reinventing the wheel. On the other, the fact that they often aren’t recognized as cycles, or are interpreted as such but without nuance, is even more distressing. It is as if we are, as a society, doomed to recognize, every half-century or so, the necessity of the social contract, and in the interregnums between such periods of clarity, we are free to engage in Roman orgies of self-aggrandizing selfishness and self-destruction, for what is the last twenty-five years of Republican-led and Democratic-sponsored deregulation other than an incredible abdication of responsibility and self-awareness, a strange self-mutilation of the state, a resentful hangover from the end of formal legal white supremacy?
I recently began re-reading, before the current crisis, Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, an instructive primer on how we came to be where we are. Like Alan Hollinghurst’s more introspective and dreamlike The Line of Beauty, Ellis’ controversial murderous epic, published in 1991, neatly delineates exactly what was wrong with the emergence of Wall Street culture and the rise of the political Right across the anglophone world in the eighties. But the big reveal is not in the murder scenes, which while horrendously graphic, almost ridiculously so, are a rather transparent metaphor.
Rather, they are to be found in the detailed, obsessive lists of consumer goods Patrick Bateman, the central protagonist, recites about himself and the characters he encounters. Often paragraphs long, these descriptions of what characters are wearing, or what their homes contain, designer and brand names, textures, the descriptive apparatus of magazine advertising:
Price seems nervous and edgy, and I have no desire to ask him what’s wrong. He’s wearing a linen suit by Canali Milano, a cotton shirt by Ike Behar, a silk tie by Bill Blass and cap-toed leather lace-ups from Brooks Brothers. I’m wearing a lightweight linen suit with pleated trousers, a cotton shirt, a dotted silk, all by Valentino Couture, and perforated cap-toe leather shoes by Allen-Edmonds. Once inside Harry’s we spot David Van Patten and Craig McDermott at a table up front. Van Patten is wearing a double-breasted wool and silk sport coat, button-fly wool and silk trousers with inverted pleats by Mario Valentino, a cotton shirt by Gitman Brothers, a polka-dot silk tie by Bill Blass and leather shoes from Brooks Brothers. McDermott is wearing a woven-linen suit with pleated trousers, a button-down cotton and linen shirt by Basile, a silk tie by Joseph Abboud and ostrich loafers from Susan Bennis Warren Edwards. (31)
These obsessive lists are vertiginous in their detail, but capture through that dislocation, through the attention paid to such things, the fundamental illness of late Capitalist consumerism and in particular the bonfire of vanities that seems now to be crashing down around us, to which Bateman’s murderous splurges are but the final coda on a society that prizes appearance and things over more socially ameliorative values, like our fellow citizens.
It comes as no surprise to those of us familiar with the echoes of American racial histories that the race baiting of the Republican candidates and their surrogates over the past two weeks dovetails nicely with the rising urgency of the global economic crisis, the ostensible end of the era of the Patrick Batemans and their existential lack of humanity. The only surprise, depressingly so, is how potentially effective such strategies remain, at least for a fringe of deeply unsettled people, angry at the world.
Instead of being afraid, as a McCain partisan claimed this past week in Minnesota, that he was afraid to raise his (unborn) child under an Obama presidency, the angry crowds gathering under the Republican ticket would perhaps be better served by pondering the effects of rising inequality and the inhumanity detailed in Ellis, how we all came to embody the psychopathological lack of Wall Street and Patrick Bateman. It is to Wall Street that the American Republic has been given exclusively for the last generation, and we see now where that all has led.
I, for one, am quite glad to be labeled a Commie Faggot.