Sunday, July 5, 2009

High-water marks

I was watching that old Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas movie a couple days ago, and the film's dialogue and narration got me to dusting off my old copy of the book on which it was based. There are numerous passages that could easily provide food for thought, but one in particular struck me:
There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. ...

And that, I think, was the handle -- that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting -- on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. ...

So now, less than five years later, you can up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark -- that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
That quote is from page 68 of the old Warner Books paperback that came out in 1982. It's the edition I've had since I was a teen. Hunter S. Thompson was trying to describe the Zeitgeist of the cultural revolution of sorts that was taking place in San Francisco back in the the mid-1960s. By the time 1971 rolled around, he was observing the wreckage from the dreams of that brief period (see pp 178-179):
... a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody -- or at least some force -- is tending to that light at the end of the tunnel.
I started reminiscing about this sorry decade's high-water mark - or at least the one that matters most to me. In early 2003 as George Bush II's "War on Terra" was about to engulf the people of Iraq, an incredible thing happened. What had been a largely dormant antiwar movement reignited. By the time February 2003 rolled around, we were witness to the largest global demonstrations against what was then still only a proposed invasion of Iraq. In those few weeks before the US unleashed its own special brand of Armageddon on Baghdad, Fallujah, and elsewhere in Iraq, there was a real sense that all of these countless millions of people could actually stop that invasion from happening. We held on to the hope that the third phase of the Iraq War (which had been initiated by Bush I and continued by Clinton) was not a done deal, and that reasonable people would intervene to stop it. I find it almost impossible to describe the atmosphere of the time. The best I can do is to characterize it as frenzied, electric, with a mixture of desperation and hopefulness that has yet to be repeated. The mass protests in mid-February were so huge that the usually docile corporate media were forced to cover them as a legitimate news story. Just about any major metropolitan area you can name had a protest that generated mass-turnout -- many in record numbers. For those of us who were too far away in the hinterlands, we turned to other avenues for action: editorials, letters to editors of local or regional papers, letters and emails to Congressional representatives, messages on Usenet newsgroups and electronic bulletin boards, and blog posts in order to get the word out, and to hopefully persuade the uncommitted to commit. We spanned generations and ideologies, but with a common message, and a sense that the tide was really turning; that armed with the righteousness of our cause a massacre would be averted. Having wondered what it would be like to ride the crest of a high and beautiful wave, this was the moment.

Every once in a while, when I try to explain that all-too-brief period to others, such as those among the "millennials" who are just coming of age or who may - in the case of my oldest child - just be reaching their teens, I try to point them to what was written and done as the high-water mark of the antiwar movement. The wave would break in March 2003, and with it hope. Protests occurred - and even had decent attendance - for a while, but there was never a sufficiently unified popular front to maintain or regain that momentum. Nor were blogs or internet-based "peace" organizations a sufficient substitute for sheer physical human presence. It wasn't for a lack of trying.

It seems almost a lifetime ago now. One of the crucial lessons from then that was quickly jettisoned could be boiled down to a slogan: you are the one you've been waiting for. Instead, too many keep looking for some savior to swoop down at the very last second to right all real and perceived wrongs. That's led to shoveling money into Democratic Party front organizations such as Moveon.org, to the current Pope of Hope who now occupies the White House Throne. The savior business is filled with false prophets, who will gladly sell you a bill of goods. Those t-shirts and bumper stickers emblazoned with words such as "hope" and "change" are, in the waning days of this sorry decade, as faded as the hopes and dreams pinned upon their figurehead leader. Look around you and witness the withdrawal in name only occurring in Iraq, the escalation of atrocities in Afghanistan and increasingly Pakistan, along with the superficial "closing" of the torture chambers in Guantánamo Bay (coupled with the expansion of those in Bagram), and renaming of the "War on Terra" to something a bit more wonkish and banal. The singer changed, but the song remains the same and the war machine hums along.

My advice for those who try to ride the crest of the next big wave, whenever or wherever it may occur is simple: the only one, the only force, who's going to tend to that light at the end of the tunnel is you.

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