As the traveler approaches California, he comes to a place where you can buy
a marguerita and watch tigers eat gay men. But after that it begins to get strange.
Don't burst a blood vessel over Bush. Taint worth it.
~ an old friend, recently retired from the CIA
Leaving Toon Town
In the early-1980's, on a stretch of unfinished freeway in Idaho, I narrowly avoided a head-on collision with a large Kenworth 14 wheel tractor trailer. It was one of those common drug-related misunderstandings where I thought it was one-way traffic and it wasn't. I pulled on over to the left shoulder so that this flying boxcar could shudder past my passenger side window in a blur of glittered lacquer and quilted steel and nudie mud flaps, missing me by a good eight inches. I often amuse myself by considering that if that chrome flyswatter had actually connected with me (at a relative speed of 140+ mph) my life, like a bugs ass, might simply have proceeded without a glitch into some parallel universe. The jury is out, frankly, on whether this actually did occur. From here, I can have no way of knowing whether my path has taken a quantum detour, except maybe to notice that certain things which are real and commonplace in my present universe would have been impossible - outside the pale of Newtonian physics - prior to 1982. That would explain why Arnold Schwarzenegger, a fictitious, woman-groping, Nazi-loving, anthropoidal bubblegum card, is about to become Governor of California. In the world in which I grew up, something like that could not have happened.
Another theory is more probable, more samsaric, more in keeping with the Neoplatonist and Vedantic tenets of my professed belief system, namely that the world proceeds from me like a hallucination. The objective world is maya, a conceptual error, a solipcistic nothingburger. The madness I perceive is my own. I dont need to run up and down the street trying to get millions of blithering idiots to vote Bush out of office and check themselves into therapy. I only need to see that I am having a private nightmare. The world hasnt changed into a Batman comic. Really. It's me. It's always been me and only me, locked in the maximum security ward of my mind. Nobody is out there.
A third possibility, if Father Joe is right, is that all of it (and every one of you) actually exists out there, and that it is you who have gone completely insane.
Theories are supposed to explain reality, so times like these are opportunities to check our theories against the strange face of the world in our windshields. Any of the above scenarios permit the possibility of Arnold Schwarzenegger being Governor of California. So thats good. It means that the theories at my disposal are serviceable and resilient and there for me, to provide a soothing scrim of reason when I need one. Californians, who are demented, choose Arnold Schwarzenegger, who represents the Enron guys who just got done swindling them out of $9 billion in bogus energy costs, to govern them - it still makes me short of breath - just as you would expect demented people to do. So all is well, wouldnt you say? There would be reason to worry if demented people behaved any other way.
But might we also consider whether this is how we want things to be? Most people, apparently, see nothing really monumentally ludicrous about the California recall election. They are now over their shock and even listening politely to broadcasts of Governor Schwarzenegger (oh God, let me die soon!) reaching out to all Californians as if the whole thing were not still utterly crazy. Speaking for myself, I dont want things to be this way. I agree with Goya that the sleep of reason produces monsters. Its just a postulate. When the dead, the fictitious, the insane, the hopelessly silly are chosen to rule us, we are going to go to a bad place - a place of death, or make-believe or madness. You don't have to analyze it deeply to suspect that we are going be sorry we made those choices. Following the blind is always risky business, as is blindly following the predatory.
The collective march of human thought, seeming to expand in concentric spheres beyond our localized selves, is itself broadcast from a flimsy cerebral accretion at the evolving surface of the brains we seem to be. It beholds the world as real estate, as food - a planar event into which nourishing pastures our infinitely expandable colonies can penetrate in a kind of endless acquisition, a forever interminable gold rush. Until it reaches California, at which time, perceiving that it has come to the threshold beyond which lies its starting point, the already known, highly populated, uninvadeable, fish-reeking orient, it gleans that it is a prisoner of finitude. California is where tectonic fault blocks come impossibly together, and where the eyes of manifest destiny peer out across the sea to the edge of the New World, to the end of history-as-migration, the end of walking away from your garbage. The end of having a place to flee from congestion and deprivation and the people you have pissed off. The blue Pacific is civilizations Dunkirk. It is a psychological place where Europeans, having become adept at clearing forests and exterminating indigenous tribes, must finally come to grips with the extinction of wilderness itself. The conquistadors worst fear raises its terrifying head - that he has already got all that there is. If there is now not enough water, if the soil is barren, if nobody likes you, if you are bored stiff and cant stand it another minute, there is nowhere to go. You just have to stay put and work it out.
The halt of the Conestogas might also be, for us, a significant evolutionary passage - the beginning of an ultimate "densification which Teilhard de Chardin thought, in other historical contexts, to precede evolutionary leaps. Chemically, it initiates molecular agitation, increasing heat and generating new compounds. In drying Paleozoic mud puddles it invents lungs and turns flippers into fingers. In urbanized Europe it sparks an industrial revolution, followed by modern warfare and newly devastating triggers for those itchy new fingers. In the crucible of mid-20th century nuclear paranoia it pops a man onto the moon. And now, at the western extremity of the flight of European civilization from itself, pressed against the chicken wire at the end of the cage, we have the Californians who, with nowhere left to go, have gone Loony Tunes.
California is the double-bind, the suffocating fish, the home and symbol of freedom and imprisonment, escapism and denial. Like the too-rich who are accustomed to jumping on a plane and skipping off to elsewhere whenever life gets tedious, California believes in getting away. It has a drinking problem. It has a drug problem. It slides easily in and out of fantasy. Unsure of what is real and what is not, eerily comfortable with a relaxed grip on normalcy, impatient, hip, given to fits of anxiety, sexually ambivalent, economically, geologically and emotionally unstable, wildly bipolar, California has gone to the movies. Assertive intelligence has imploded to Hale-Bopp. Postmodernist cleverness has evaporated whatever philosophical anchors might have been holding a structured reality in place, replacing these with spates of feminism, gay parades, popcorn, flesh rings, vague and sporadic political activity, glib pundits, greased pig spirituality, liposuction, bongs, tattoos and finally Arnold who, in a numinous fake morning mist provided by Industrial Light and Magic, broods vacantly over the sea beside the rock where he has chained bare-breasted Arianna, his vanquished nemesis, pondering what he would do next if he really were Conan, if he really were anybody, if any of it were real or mattered at all.
Congratulations, California. If your goal was to slip the surly bonds of earth, you have achieved zero gravity. You have gone to Brazil, munched the magic cookie, hopped away to join Glenda and the March Hare. Those of us who have watched in disbelief now know how seriously to take you, since we know how seriously you take yourselves. The debate now dinging through the pinball machine of Americas brain is whether the California experience has a wider political meaning for us. The discussion is not without an undercurrent of dread. As our emissary to the vida loca, you are also our mine canary. When we consider that your madness might be contagious, that something comparably stupid could happen to us, it stops being funny.
As far as Europeans are concerned, we are all Californians. Like most of the rest of the world, they watch us with similar disbelief. They can see that were living in a funny book. A bad, cheap, incredibly dumb funny book. Its true. If it isnt a George Bush spaghetti western its a soaring Ashcroft eagle or a bloody Schwarzenegger slash porn revenge flick, featuring absolute good vs unforgiveable villainy, explosions, ultimatums, evil minions, explicit violence and partial nudity. Left to our own devices, like Eastern European peasants, living our lives and creating our own organic history, our stories would be infinitely more dignified and interesting than this hackneyed shit. The collective mythology through which we observe and create human history isn't supposed to look like issue #128 of The Fantastic Four. This is an adolescent wet dream, obviously the work of a small number of immature, superficially educated people who grew up reading too many comics themselves and who have come to see the world in terms of comic book stories and comic book characters. It is being cooked up and fed to us by brainy, pimple-faced teen agers with pudgy cheeks, thick glasses and vengeful minds who grew up to become, as one might think, cynical, twisted, power-obsessed assholes like Karl Rove.
And so we contemplate a White House filled with simple-minded extremists for whom power is a kids game and not a responsibilty or a trust, in which the President, his advisor and evil mentor, and virtually every cabinet member are not only liars but known felons, sandbagged into a White House so ruthlessly heedless of common decency that even the CIA wants to bust them. They are not wildly popular any more, since the substance they pretended to have has turned out to be another product of Industrial Light and Magic. The more or less 50% approval rating that keeps them from going up in a cloud of smoke reflects the wider vacuity that is, lets face it, us. We are so severely dumbed down from fifty years of watching brainless tv programs and admiring stupid people that we wouldn't recognize a disaster if it fell on us.
The all-important boundary between reality and fiction is difficult enough to find even when it is important to us, even when we bring to bear all the wisdom and sobriety the best of human thought has to offer to cipher it out. Such an option, in these United States, as we peer out of this abyss of ignorance, as we wave our tiny flags, as we attend our moronic pizza parties and recite our disconnected platitudes, as we enter this terrible millenium, is so remote that we might as well relax. Taint worth it. Not long ago my fear was that the neocons would seduce us into making the world into George Bushs world. That we would wake up some morning in Toon Town. Today, as I look with something beyond sadness at what remains of my beautiful country, I see that George Bush could not have appeared among us if we were not already in Toon Town.
What to do? When you have taken leave of terra firma, even flapping your arms doesnt help. If things are too crazy for you, if you dont see how you are going to get comfortable with Arnold (and the stinging bats that will burst out of his chest any day now), you can always go someplace else. Take a good book and move to Moose Jaw, Manitoba. Find another Kenworth and try a different parallel universe. The freedom we are all so concerned about defending is the last thing we have the power to lose. Its imperatives and certainties that are getting scarce.
So I dont know about all of you possibly nonexistent people who might really be out there with Fadda Joe, or who might be nothing more than bits of undigested beef, but speaking for myself I figure Ill go it alone. Like Orr in Catch 22, with a tiny, inflatable boat and a single paddle. I'm going to try to make myself into Steve McQueens motorcycle. I'm going to transform myself into a meaty expression of pure hope, a shape like a key, visible to some celestial eye, operative in some celestial latch, a projectile of involuted escape, return, reunion.
There's no place like home.