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Vol. 16, No. 4, 2017
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Donald Dewey has published more than 30 books of fiction and nonfiction. In 2015 he published two mysteries: the double-book The Fantasy League Murders/The Bolivian Sailor, and Green Triangles. Later this year, he will publish the biography Buccaneer: James Stuart Blackton and the Birth of American Movies.

Growing up in Brooklyn in the middle of the 20th century meant TV encounters with Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy and Birmingham, Alabama Commissioner ‘Bull’ Connor. While McCarthy railed against phantom communists and pushed thousands toward blacklists and unemployment lines, Connor used his authority in his city’s fire and police departments to unleash hoses and attack dogs against civil rights marchers. In the parlance of my Brooklyn streets, both were punks whose lies and bluster thrived until their swaggering became too transparent as desperation.

McCarthy and Connor eventually went away, but their departure also abetted an illusion that can be more perilous than their behaviour had been while they were still on the planet --- to wit, that progress can be linear, that once combatted for what they are, infamies such as demagoguery and racism will have had their day. We have warned ourselves against this tempting presumption, of course. We haven’t had to be on a dance floor to value the insight about two steps forward and one step backward. We haven’t had to tune in to sports talk shows to second all those clichés from players about never letting ourselves get too high or too low. And we certainly haven’t had to be students of the writings of Georg Hegel or Karl Marx to appreciate that social dynamics can require reversals as a condition for achieving further advances. All that wisdom -- intuitive, robotic, or theoretical -- has always been out there for counseling patience, telling us not to be aghast when past vilenesses return as pressing community concerns.

Fine. No such thing as linear progress. Receives daily confirmation. But then there is also my life, where that wisdom is hardly reassuring, in fact feels plenty hollow.

All through the Nixons, Reagans, and Bushes, I harboured a drop of optimism, wanting to believe that even they knew that for all their fictional alibis for wars, callous indifference to social oppressions, and numerous monopolistic arrogances we spoke if not a common language at least operated from a common alphabet. Granted that wasn’t much, not with the bodies being piled up in Vietnam, the Middle East and inner city neighbourhoods, but it left open a frail hope that somewhere along the line brutishness might hesitate a second before clomping on. And, let it be said, that hope also had to defy the rendition practices of the Clinton administration and the deportation enthusiasms of the Obama White House. It wasn’t necessary to be partisan to dangle from a ledge of credulousness.

Then along came November 2016, and ever since then the two-step-forward-one-step-backward tango has lost the last measure of rationalization it might have had. If the present Washington cartoon is the antithesis posited by Hegel and Marx, their synthesis to come will have to be Utopia. With the administration’s every new pronouncement and appointment the stretch between my morning and twilight years takes on clearer shape as a mockery leaving me back where I began with McCarthy and Connor, allowance made only for witnessing the boomerang in high-definition peacock colours rather than on grainy black-and-white newsreels. Have all these years -- years that have included successful mass protests against our foreign invasions, our (albeit belated) awareness of how we have been poisoning the climate, and the election of an African-American president -- amounted to little more than a long confident march into a wall? This isn’t a political or ideological question, it is a life question. And I would really like to know the answer before being told to pick out a crematorium.

Give or take the odd itch to start a nuclear war with North Korea to show who’s narcissistic boss, the most conspicuous answer looms not from any specific policy issue, but from the now-presidential cretinizing of American society, promoting ignorance, amnesia and exploitation as a given. Why worry about the mere facts of a NAFTA, intrigues over Russia, or all those earthquakes in Oklahoma when the very concept of truth has been dismissed as being less conclusive than a Geico commercial? Who cares about contradictory things said or done between yesterday and today when the betting is on an attention span that values only Nick at Nite for anything worth preserving? What’s wrong with the Constitution being deregulated along with everything else?

Many analyses of this desolate tableau have already been pondered and printed, and in all kinds of tones -- polemical, legalistic, black humorous. But what even perceptive pundits have neglected in their astonishment and outrage is time. Historians and political scientists can afford to take the long view, digging into the likes of James Buchanan and Warren Harding for comparisons to the present havoc, but those primarily answerable to their own lives, in the here and now, find little solace in these excavations. A very personal clock is ticking for a life such as, say, mine, and it doesn’t find consolation in the follies of the 1850s and 1920s.

The starting point here is the most visceral one -- feeling. And as with the punks in my Brooklyn neighbourhood who once kept Lucky Strikes in business standing on the corner and cracking witty things to the women hurrying past, intimidation is one of its settings. The frissons from merely talking about eliminating Meals-on-Wheels, for instance, may convey as much delirium as threat, the kind would-be tough guys need for impressing themselves with their insensibility, but that doesn’t make the pathetic harmless. Would-be tough guys occasionally give in to their masturbatory fantasies.

But that said, my strongest feeling within the orbit of the 45th President of the United States is that of simply being cheapened by having to share the air with him and his bag men; cheapened as a human being. It is a scabby feeling, like waking up in a flea pit of a hotel room, knowing immediately that it is too late to ask how I got there and that I will probably never get out fast enough to forget having been there. It is stirred at the mere image of that perpetually glowering face and by the sense that there is nothing behind it except an endless Quaker Puffed Oats succession of other glowering faces. In contrast to some of his predecessors, even the most baleful of them, the only alphabet we have in common hints at three-letter crossword puzzle answers that he is incapable of solving and that I would take no pride in solving. Intelligence may not be everything, but in the right enervating conditions it can be made to feel altogether irrelevant.

Obviously, the melancholy and disillusionment within my attitude can be exploited as disabling components working to the benefit of the New Punks and not at all helpful to pushback movements around the country and the world. Pazienza! If we’re going to take on these cretins, we cannot be ashamed of what we have invested. Punks are still punks. They have never graduated to the status of those hoodlums who assure imminent victims that there is nothing personal in what they are about to do, that it’s just business. The last thing the New Punks are capable of understanding is that for me, who has never been diagnosed with amnesia, it is both personal and business.


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Also by Donald Dewey:
Not Playing It Safe
Meeting the Author
The Overwriting Syndrome
Writers As Ideas
Let Them Entertain Us
It's a Kindergarten Life
Being and Disconnectedness
History of Humour in the Cinema
Cartoon Power











Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
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