L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 153, December 24, 2001
G*D HELP US, EVERY ONE!
Life Imitating Art: Bumper Sticker Patriotism & Plastic Barf
by Paul Weber
Special to TLE
The great poet Shelley wrote that the poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Okay, he was a bit of a twit, but it does seem that the metaphors of great literature sometimes help explain the insanity of the modern day world. Alluding to the world of literature and art, we can express complex ideas by means of single, striking analogies. We could, for example, spend pages upon pages enumerating the crimes and dirty deals of Hillary Clinton; many writers have done so with varying degrees of success. But if we really want to nail down that conniving broad with a single phrase, we can simply say she's a Lady MacBeth. Of course, there are inconsistencies in the allusion: Lady MacBeth, though she uses her husband much as St. Hillary did, was haunted by a conscience, whereas Hillary seems by all accounts not to have one. MacBeth himself seems a tragic figure, a potentially great man brought down by circumstances beyond his control, by the malevolent schemes of the three weird sisters. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, has known a few weird sisters in his time, but I don't know anyone who would consider his downfall, such as it was, worthy material for a great play.
Seeing the recent behavior of fellow Americans, I've been trying to figure out what tragic figure in drama or literature would serve as allegory for their strange behaviors. Americans, you see, really are swell people, by and large: they are phenomenally productive members of a still-largely-capitalistic society. Their love of material comfort, far from being the vice the Left abhors, is really one of their great virtues, because the production of material wealth depends so much on a morality of fair dealing; mass sellers of consumer goods in America will do just about anything to satisfy a customer. I've had many discussions with Europeans who move to America and are astounded at how easily they can return merchandise if they have second thoughts. In Europe, they tell me, if you decide you spent too much on that stereo, the merchant is just as likely as not to say, "tough luck-you bought it."
Nonetheless, though Americans are (again, speaking generally) extremely moral in their personal dealings with each other, they nonetheless are pure saps for any jingoistic rhetoric the ruling class throws their way. The atrocities of 9-11 have led to what the major media call Patriotism. The identifying features of this Patriotism seem to come in two broad categories: flag-waving and uncritical approval of the government. The flag-waving is obvious enough: the roadways are filled with cars sporting all kinds of flags and flag-logos, from bumper stickers to flags mounted on the radio antenna. Listening to Neocon talk radio, you'd think most Americans had lost their minds: it's not unusual any more to hear people openly calling for nuking Baghdad or Tehran, or conducting simultaneous war against some 60 nations officially identified as being "friendly to terrorists." In other words, World War III. The hosts on these programs respond to these calls with respect and deference, even in the rare instances they disagree; it seems everyone is deathly afraid of being branded "unpatriotic" for not agreeing with open calls for genocide.
Bumper-Sticker Patriotism, however, is (I hope) a mile wide and an inch deep. It's really quite easy to be a warhawk, sitting in your living room, vicariously enjoying the glory of Our Boys bombing the living tar out of a country with a per-capita Gross Domestic Product of about $800. Patriotism is so easy, isn't it? You can purchase it for $4.99, slap it on your car, watch it in living color on television, or watch it being used in ad campaigns to sell you more cars (the truly execrable "Keep America Rolling" ads that try to get you to buy cars as a patriotic duty).
Though Bumper-Sticker Patriotism can be annoying, it will probably fade with a little time. Those who push Bumper-Sticker Patriotism in order to sell a bunch of flags may be loathsome, but they're generally harmless. I've never been one to get too overwrought by people who just want to make a few quick bucks. No one, as Mencken said, ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. A little venality mixed with Bumper-Sticker Patriotism is so blatantly opportunistic, it's amusing. The other half of the Patriotism Equation, however, is not so amusing: blind trust in the government. Over the last few decades, trust in government had been constantly eroded. People coming out of college or high school found they could make a pretty good living in the humming private economy. When they looked at the government, they saw Bill Clinton. Clinton performed the inestimable service to the country of removing any pretensions government officials had of being superior moral beings. Previous political creatures at least tried to maintain a front of conventional decency, even if they did bang Marilyn Monroe and pretty interns on the side; Clinton, on the other hand, was such a scummy creature he couldn't even maintain the fake front. His strange, neurotic need to screw vulnerable women while screwing the average taxpayer was so creepy as to convince a lot of Americans (correctly) that politicians as such were hopelessly diseased individuals.
But now, we are allegedly "at war." War is the health of the state and the redemption of politicians; the American people especially can always be counted on the rally 'round the flag and defend even the slimiest fruitcake politician, so long as that politician wraps himself in the flag. Indeed, Junior Bush has seen his approval ratings skyrocket from the low 50s to the low 90s. The grotesque USA-PATRIOT act was rammed through Congress with almost unanimous approval, even though it hadn't even been printed in its entirety and given to the legislators to consider and debate. Either they were afraid of being destroyed politically by being branded "unpatriotic," or they saw in the USA-PATRIOT act the chance of a lifetime to institute every obnoxious, controlling, tyrannical law they could ever have hoped for. Either way, we're stuck with violation of attorney-client privilege, with increased snooping on our e-mail and telephones, and with the socialist's dream: the National ID Card (which isn't yet a complete reality, though the USA-PATRIOT act certainly lays the groundwork).
Given this background, we can now begin to look for analogies in literature that explain the insanity of our fellow Americans. A natural tendency would be to look to George Orwell's sheep in Animal Farm, who march around bleating "four legs gooood, two legs baaaad!" Certainly, this metaphor has a lot to recommend it; the sheep, like taxpayers, literally get sheared to provide comfortable clothes for the pig-politicians, just as Americans get sheared by the government, even as they wave their flags and obediently beg to be sheared some more. And, when the sheep are old and no longer useful, they undoubtedly get fed to the dogs, who are the pig-politicians' equivalent of the FBI. The only weakness I can find in this allegory is that sheep are genuinely stupid creatures, while Americans really should know better. I know the public schools have dumbed down a large percentage of the population, but still, a people that develops computers that can perform a million simultaneous operations should be able to see through the jingoism just a little more easily than they do. A certain small percentage of Americans do see through the rhetoric, finding it a constant source of amazement that other Americans are so easily taken in.
But sheep are trusting creatures, even when being led to the shearing pen or the slaughterhouse. They stare with unperceptive eyes as their fellow sheep are sheared or butchered, chewing the cud, not making the connection that they are next in line. In like manner, it's almost unbelievable how trusting Americans are of their government. The head spook in Washington says bin Laden is behind the bombings, but he doesn't give any evidence. It's classified, you see -- but we still want you to march off to war without actually seeing the evidence. No Problem, the sheep reply. Cognitive dissonance seems nonexistent in both sheep and Americans: we support radical Muslims in Kosovo, while condemning them in Afghanistan. Indeed, we finance and supply bin Laden while he fights the Russians, then declare him the next Hitler when he demands that we, too, withdraw from the Middle East. Somewhere behind our big, brown, contented sheep's eyes, we surmise that those boys in Washington really do (somehow) know what they're doing, that they really are master Machiavellians who can skillfully pull the strings of a hundred puppets around the world: deftly supporting radical Muslims here, bombing the hell out of them over there; playing hardball with the Russkies when they're Commies, and being chummy with them when the same Russkies claim to have seen the light of free markets as they make the conversion to fascism. Those pigs and dogs really have a handle on things, don't they?
In science fiction, there are probably a hundred short stories and novels in which good, upstanding citizens, against their will, are made to carry out the nefarious work of some disgusting alien species. I recall an episode of the early Star Trek in which the logical and self-controlled Mr. Spock investigates a planet that has been taken over by little parasitic creatures who look like the plastic barf you buy in novelty stores. Of course one of the little critters slaps itself against his Atlas vertebra, injecting (we presume) some sort of gooey slime into his spinal column that quickly insinuates itself into his entire nervous system. In vain, Spock tries to assert his rationality and logic against the increasing pain and incessant commands on the creature within him. The same sort of thing happens, in various ways, in Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters, and other novels, movies, and short stories. The same plot repeats itself over and over again: well-meaning people being taken over by the plastic barf creatures, forced to do evil deeds against their will. The plastic barf creatures usually are part of some giant collective, acting together as though made up of a single brain. In some stories, there literally is a single brain communicating telepathically with all the plastic barf creatures; sometimes it looks like a pile of wriggling protoplasm oozing Pennzoil, while at other times it looks like Hillary Clinton's head with a bunch of latex tentacles protruding from the neck, sitting under a glass dome, eyes glancing back and forth suspiciously as it communicates telepathically with its far-flung empire.
The poor victims of the plastic barf creatures, for the most part, march zombie-like, helpless to resist. But somehow, deep inside, a tiny voice cries out in protest, struggling in vain to throw off the tyrannical creatures. But the rest of the body continues to follow the orders of the plastic barf creatures-hypnotically and unenthusiastically, to be sure, but it cannot resist the force of the barf creatures' collective telepathy.
By now, the analogy should be perfectly clear: the victims, whose healthy and robust bodies are made to work against them, are the American nation. The screaming voices within, barely audible, are those of the small minority of libertarians who rage impotently against the collective, while their fellow citizens march zombie-like to do the bidding of the Central Brain-Washington-sitting under the glass dome, latex tentacles clutching at the air.
And, of course, the government with all its many agencies is the Plastic Barf.
I do so wish I could give you a happy ending to this grim metaphor of the current crisis. The first, black and white version of the movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, was originally to have a decidedly pessimistic ending: the hero runs from car to car, warning that the enemy is coming, that we've all lost our humanity. Everyone, of course, ignores him, thinking he's mad. Fade to black. Test audiences found the conclusion so upsetting that the producers decided they had to tack on a phony, happy ending: a policeman picks up the phone and calls Washington. Wow, that should make us all feel safer!
The metaphor is useful, however. The next time some raving Neocon approaches you, saying you must cease and desist from criticizing the war effort, just remember that the poor guy has a plastic barf creature stuck to his Atlas vertebra. He really can't help himself. When he insists your son or daughter should enlist in the noble war effort, picture the Hillary Clinton Head under the glass dome in Washington, calling all the shots.
If you want a potential happy ending, remember that, in the Star Trek episode, the barf creatures are killed by exposure to sunlight. Talk about heavy allegory! So if we, the pathetic 10 percent of the population that is dedicated to freedom, free-markets, and non-interventionism, keep shining the light, the Central Brain will eventually start oozing battery acid, gasping for breath, before exploding in a shower of slime and protoplasm. Messy, but worth it.