Waterworld: What'll Go Down the Drain?
“The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate. That is to say, when the individual remains undivided and does not become conscious of his inner opposite, the world must perforce act out the conflict and be torn into opposing halves." —Carl JungFriday night a friend urged me to get myself in front of a television set. She said that she had never seen the media reacting as emotionally as it was that night, which was five days into the aftermath of Katrina. She described the on-air behavior of various broadcasters and insisted that I see for myself. She said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a race war.”
Well, I don’t have a tv, so I missed all of that, but I have caught sound bytes from various radio pundits and shows, and I’ve read Michael Moore’s open letter to Bush, Molly Ivins' much-read piece, etc. I’ve been voyeur, listening in on the conversations of other commuters, shoppers, library patrons and other people who've been places I've gone. I’ve talked to coworkers, my dad, a Nigerian cab driver who dropped me off at a friend’s place.
Basically, everybody’s talking about what’s going on in New Orleans. Everyone is talking about race, poverty, the Iraqi war, and President (whether you like it or not) Bush in ways that aren't usually so public or so consuming. I have been asked to share my opinion, but I haven’t been forthcoming because while I have an opinion, it’s imprecise. Still, I suppose it’s worth stating aloud.
For me, there are two emotions running at hand: hope and fear. My hope is that regardless of which side you’re on, regardless of who’s to blame for what, regardless of what could have or should have happened or been avoided, people will keep on talking and talking and talking and talking it out. My fear is that like HealthSouth (Scrushy who?) and Enron, the Florida and Ohio counts, and about a gazillion other situations and events that tarnish and diminish the good of this country, we’ll forget.
Let’s face it, we’ve got attention spans so short that collectively speaking, the national consciousness is a lot like that of the main character in Memento, who: “lives in the present tense. Unable to create new memories after suffering a head injury, he's left with fading images of his life before that point in time, and scrambles to make sense of events as they happen to him, moment by moment. Because he can't keep an idea in his head for more than a couple of minutes, Leonard writes notes … in hopes that when he looks at them, he'll know what he was telling himself. Trouble is, he tends not to remember what all these notes mean.”
This country has suffered a flurry of head injuries. 9/11 was a head injury, but Bush was already in office. I can see considering Election 2000 as a head injury, but that felt more like a blow below the belt. Besides, were things really so different before Bush landed in the White House? On the surface yes, but dig even a little bit deeper, and it’s not like Al-Queda only began playa hatin’ us in 2000. It’s not within the past five years only that minorities in this country have felt disenfranchised too.
I think we might be punch drunk from the assassinations of Medgar Evers, the Kennedy Brothers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X right on through the trial and ridiculous verdict of O. J. Simpson; Watergate was one smack down, the events leading to the Star report was another. The imprisionment of Mumia and Leonard. Waco and Oklahoma City. The Patriot Act.
It’s been blow after blow for a really long time, and that’s just stuff we’ve delivered unto ourselves, though there are those who claim that Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were self-inflicted too. What better way to buy national buy-in and distraction than to take a near knock-out punch on the chin every now and then. Americans are infamously easy to rally once everyone’s on the same page, even if some people, like the Japs, Indians, or niggers have to be herded into internment camps, reservations, housing projects or jails, respectively. Or ignored altogether, like the 9/11 families or the Cindy Sheehans.
Go back to Memento and how the guy wrote notes to himself to try to retain facts. We’ve got media and art for that. The countless headlines and opinion pieces and captioned photos and broadcast archives. The artistic statements from flags in toilets and talking vaginas to the Vietnam Wall and Hollywood movies. Assuming they’re ever accurate, after time passes what do they all mean when taken out of the context of conception and restored in an altogether different context?
In her great review of the film, PopMatters Film and TV Editor Cynthia Fuchs writes, “The relationship between meaning and memory is a complex one that most of us take for granted—when you remember something, like a face or an event, you also have for it a context and a sense of how it connects to other faces and events in your past experience. But what if you didn't have that context? How would you know which face is relevant to you? Which event has consequences? … The most unnerving effect of Memento's fragmentations and dislocations is [a] sense of doubt. At first, you're putting the narrative together… but then you realize that you can't trust your own assumptions or reading abilities….”
If you can’t trust your government (human-machine hybrid), who can you trust? We can’t even trust the ballot chads, and Soylent Green is people.
This is my fear. If we don’t keep this level of awareness, things will blow over because they always do. Whether the governmental response to a particularly destructive weather pattern that has forced us into deconstructing the origins of and validity of claims of racism or classism or heartlessness or political payback or opportunism or simply a major major fuck up, the undercurrent that’s been exposed is old. Real old. The New Deal gave way to the criminalization of proverty even before Bush claimed the throne, even before The Clash offered their public service announcement (with guitar) more than 20 years ago:
Know your rights all three of them
You have the right not to be killed
Murder is a crime!
Unless it was done by a
Policeman or aristocrat
Know your rights
And number 2
You have the right to food money
Providing of course you
Don’t mind a little
And if you cross your fingers
Know your rights
These are your rights
You have the right to free
Speech as long as you’re not
Dumb enough to actually try it.
There are those who subscribe to a three-world model, of which we usually only talk about the First World (us) and the Third World (them). But we rarely consider the two Americas. The shadow America (as I tend to think of it with a purposefully Jungian nuance) seems to exist within the denial of the empire America. Yet, when Bush said, “We face a dangerous enemy who wants to harm our people and our way of life,” he, representing the haves, was referring to the shadow self. I say that because the poor of this country, unbeknownst to themselves, share a socio-cultural identity (of poverty) that transcends nation-state boundaries in a very Fourth World way that belies the sharing of ethno-indigenous traits to create the sort of one-ness that might save the world.
Fuchs says, in the end, “Memento isn't about character development or change—Leonard is incapable of either. Losing meaning is a frightening experience, because you're so used to thinking you have it, that your identity remains constant from moment to moment, that your memory is who you are. If you have no memory, then who are you?” Who are we as a nation, and who will we be once the water has receded?