Three years and six days

In the week before the 2016 US general election, I took to Facebook with a series of posts that were meant to capture “America in Six Days,” or at least, one idiosyncratic vision of America (mine) as witnessed through six cultural artifacts, plus a seventh bonus day in the immediate wake of the election. I enjoyed writing that series of posts, even though they were just for my relatively small social media circle, and I expanded them as I went along. I enjoyed it so much that it spurred my creative energies more than the academic writing for publication I was doing at the time, and so by February 2017 as I settled into the meaty part of a six-month sabbatical, I decided to take on the demands of a blog once more. Well, ‘demands’ is maybe a stretch. As I said in thinking back on two years of this forum last year at this time, the blog is a good outlet when I need it – no word limit, no peer review, none of the constraints of the social scientific academic writing style, and I feed the beast as I see fit. Time is a precious resource, of course, and I have scrapped a lot of potential posts because I can’t get around to doing more than outlining them in a reasonable amount of time before they’re out of date or I lose the energy or thread. But now it’s been three years of maintaining the site, and I am happy to date with what I have produced here even though it’s eclectic in focus overall, individual posts often run too long. and there are gaps where I wanted to write something and just didn’t. I write largely but not only for myself here, and hope that those who happen upon it get something from it.

In that vein, I wanted to celebrate three years by resurrecting and archiving here my “America in Six Days (Plus One)” sets of posts from back in November 2016. It requires too many clicks and too much scrolling to get to them on Facebook, where I am hard to find in any case, and with the 2020 election season looming like a dark cloud on the near horizon, I might have to revisit the theme and form of those posts soon anyway.


Day 1 (Nov 3, 2016)

I’m going to use fb to collate “America in Six Days” as reflected in six cultural artifacts that I like. Because the last month has been shit and I need something thematic and interesting to pull me out of my doldrums.

First up – I don’t really like the Beats much at all, but I do love “America” by Allen Ginsberg, from 1956. This version has a couple of minor inaccuracies in the transcription from the original, but then so does America for real. Enjoy. [To keep this from being enormously long, here’s a snippet of Ginsberg’s poem and the rest is accessible here.]

America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.


Day 2 (Nov 4, 2016)

America in Six Days, Day 2.
Photo taken by me, at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Montana, circa July 1999. The sign in front of this obelisk, the US Army Memorial at Last Stand Hill, reads:

MASS GRAVE
PLEASE
KEEP OFF

Access to the battlefield itself, if I recall, was restricted to avoid treasure hunters disturbing graves of US cavalry and Lakota and Arapaho soldiers, many of whom were buried where they died across the field.

14915422_10153800654132610_2363206518217161417_n


Day 3 (Nov 5, 2016)

America in Six Days, Day 3

Photo by David Falconer, April 1974, part of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s DOCUMERICA photo project, 1971-77.

Original caption: Gasoline Stations Abandoned During the Fuel Crisis in the Winter of 1973-74 Were Sometimes Used for Other Purposes. This Station at Potlatch, Washington, West of Olympia Was Turned Into a Religious Meeting Hall. Signs Painted on the Gas Pumps Proclaim “Fill Up with the Holy Ghost… And Salvation.” 04/1974 (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/555513)

All photos available at http://ow.ly/y3Hl305T78Z. Excellent close up views of life in the US amid political, ecological, and economic crises, including the emerging impact and awareness of environmental degradation.

documericagasstation1974


Day 4 (Nov 6, 2016)

America in Six Days, Day 4

From the first New Jersey State Constitution, July 1776:

“Article IV. That all inhabitants of this Colony, of full age, who are worth fifty pounds proclamation money, clear estate in the same, and have resided within the county in which they claim a vote for twelve months immediately preceding the election, shall be entitled to vote for Representatives in Council and Assembly; and also for all other public officers, that shall be elected by the people of the county at large.”

The authors of the state constitution apparently did not realize or did not care that this wording (“all inhabitants”) was vague enough to allow adult women the right to vote. And many did, until a state law in 1807 clarified voter eligibility and restricted it to white men over 21 who owned property or paid taxes. I learned this tidbit of info long ago in my undergrad days and always found it astonishing how much more potentially radical the revolutionary period of the US was (and could have been) than what we imagine it to be in our mythic views of the past today. The idea that a small group of Founding Fathers, principled, reasoned, and devoid of character flaws or human frailties, sat around and just made the nation, and that we should today look back upon their example, their condition, and their ideals as perfect and fully formed upon birth, like Athena from the head of Zeus, always struck me as absurd. That documents like this state constitution, and the varied voting and governance practices that came from them (including outright fraud, see the other link below here to some educational resources I found) exist at all demonstrates the limits of the mythic America so many use now to constrain democratic imagination, and the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens that litter the actual historical development of American society, government, and life.


Day 5 (Nov 7, 2016)

America in Six Days, Day 5

Screen shots from some rounds of The Oregon Trail that I played over the weekend. In elementary school I learned simultaneously that computers were for playing games and that settler colonialism was about managing bullets, wagon wheels, and snakebites and occasionally floating your wagon down the river after the native guide told you not to. I did some digging into the history of the game, which was produced by MECC, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, a publicly-funded software developer and computing hardware provider in the state of Minnesota. MECC was so successful that it was turning a profit by the mid 1980s, and then was privatized in the early 1990s. It did not survive the dot.com implosion of the late 1990s (could it have, had it remained a state-owned business? hard to know…), but The Oregon Trail has survived, and along with it the fear that dysentery will eventually get me somewhere along the Snake River.

If you are my age and grew up in the US and want to relive grade 4 computer class, or are a young person whose phone could fly the space shuttle and you want to see the relatively primitive graphics produced in 1980s computing, you can play the game here: https://archive.org/details/msdos_Oregon_Trail_The_1990.

 


Day 6 (Nov 8, 2016)

America in Six Days, Day 6

Finally, we have reached Election Day, though many millions of Americans have already voted by mail-in ballot and early voting provisions. I voted weeks ago, and am 99% sure my ballot was properly received and counted (you never know, it could have gotten lost in the mail, so it’s never 100%). Today we get the double geographic trip of election outcomes involving tens of millions of people simplified to an emphasis on red and blue states, conjuring the public will and hopefully some public good from simple majorities, countered by the mind numbing granularity of precinct-by-precinct counts as cable news networks fall all over themselves to swoop down on particular locations to spin tales of their idiosyncrasies and representativeness. Are you a bellwether or a divining rod, Bucks County, Pennsylvania? What secrets do you tell us about the American psyche, tiny Valentine, Nebraska? How can we read your tea leaves, Wake County, North Carolina? New Hampshire, do you choose today to live free or die? What’s the matter with you, Kansas? I guess we will find out tonight. In the meantime, here is a different Map, painted in 1961 by Jasper Johns.

jasperjohnsmap1961


Day 7 (Nov 9, 2016)

America in Six Days, BONUS CONTENT

I have turned over in my mind the last few days the idea that a Trump loss would be the Republicans’ McGovern moment, that it would at the least make them recalibrate their own internal mechanisms in the face of an emboldened opposition that had crushed them and dramatically snatched victory from defeat in a national contest testing the American electorate’s capacity for self-harm. But it looks like we are quickly closing in on the opposite. Clinton’s campaign has failed. Even if she somehow squeaks this out, she has failed, the Democratic Party has failed – miserably, spectacularly, and with potentially enormous consequence for millions of people in the US and many millions more beyond its borders. So I have returned to Hunter S. Thompson, whose pieces on the campaign trail in 1972 and into the first year of the second Nixon administration – dogged by scandal, but having soundly defeated his peacenik opponent after an absolutely disastrous campaign by the insurgent Democrat – are instructive and biting as I watch this electoral map fill with red. There are no perfect historical analogies, and none would soothe how I feel right now watching so many of my fellow Americans vote for a demagogue opportunist, but HST at least demonstrates how one might let the Fear and Loathing pass over and through, and how to, as he writes, “put our acts together, Not Necessarily to Win, but mainly to keep from Losing Completely.”

So, to close my week of American detritus and cultural artifacts, a brief snippet from HST’s section “September” in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72:

The tragedy of this campaign is that McGovern and his staff wizards have not been able to dramatize what is really at stake on November 7th. We are not looking at just another dim rerun of the ’68 Nixon/Humphrey trip, or the LBJ/Goldwater fiasco in ’64. Those were both useless drills. I voted for Dick Gregory in ’68, and for “No” in ’64 … but this one is different, and since McGovern is so goddamn maddeningly inept with the kind of words he needs to make people understand what he’s up to, it will save a lot of time here – and strain on my own weary head – to remember Bobby Kennedy’s ultimate characterization of Richard Nixon, in a speech at Vanderbilt University in the spring of 1968, not long before he was murdered.

“Richard Nixon,” he said, “represents the dark side of the American spirit.”

I don’t remember what else he said that day. I guess I could look it up in the New York Times speech morgue, but why bother? That one line says it all.