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the diary thing.
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01.04.02
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 year
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richard reid with mum and dadSO THERE ARE NO PAN-AM Luna Clippers to take us to the orbiting space station on our way to the Moon colony. Well, there's no Pan-Am anymore, and the only desolate, rocky place in the news today is Afghanistan, which leads me to conclude that the world we're living in is still more Rudyard Kipling than Arthur C. Clarke. 

The biggest disappointment of 2001 was that I didn't get to take my brother-in-law to see a re-release of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, all restored 70mm widescreen print with Dolby Digital soundtrack and THX seat-shaking thunder at an actual theatre. Almost twenty-five years ago, my brother-in-law took me to see his favorite movie at the late, lamented University Theatre, back when the film was celebrating its tenth anniversary. There was much talk of taking a spiffed-up 2001 back on the road this last year, during its namesake anniversary, but apart from a handful of screenings at theatres on the west coast, it didn't end up making its way to my local megaplex. I suppose someone probably blamed 09/11, but it probably had more to do with already dwindling returns and tight budgets in the movie industry.

I was hoping to treat Lou to a screening; a nice way of bringing something full circle. In his salad days, in college and just after, he'd see 2001 over and over, the experience enhanced by the powerful acid and weedy pot of his youth. Many years later, just after dropping out of college, and inspired by my brother-in-law, I'd make my way to rep house screenings of Apocalypse Now -- my 2001 -- fortified by the watered-down tab acid and superstrength pot of my youth. I suppose you could mine quite a bit of sociological significance out of that little anecdote -- something about one generation's trippy optimism turning into the next generation's gloomy paranoia in what turned out to be the sour, waning years of the Cold War -- but it's been done before. My life is a cliche, but a comforting one, nevertheless.

SO THE PRESENT in no way resembles the future. We have personal computers and space shuttles and satellites and cloning but the house I live in is a slightly shabby Victorian brick pile that the original owners would easily recognize. All the miracle technology that we rely on every day isn't anything that wasn't imagined in a 1950 issue of Popular Science, nearly all of it on the ho-hum side of mid-century technological prognostication. There's almost nothing in our apartment that my newlywed parents didn't already have, or couldn't learn to use. No videophone, no robot maid, no kitchen protein resequencer. The only practical innovations of real importance are the way we've joined the telephone with the walkie-talkie and the motion-picture camera with the tape player. It seems we don't invent anything new as much as we find ways to put together the stuff we already have. The big difference isn't even so much one of quality as quantity -- we have so much more than our grandparents did. I'm so glad.

I suppose the joy of science fiction -- or its dumber but richer, business conference cousin, futurism -- is making a low-gravity leap into the future, unencumbered by the weight of mundane technological limitations. Personally, I'm happier here on the ground, anchored by the burden of the past that we drag into the future, a container-load of old furniture, covered in pet hair and leaking stuffing, messing with the clean lines and soiling the backlit perspex floorboards, covering the porthole panorama of the Galilean moons with chintz curtains, next to my yellowing, framed print from Hogarth's "Rake's Progress". I'm such a bad spaceman. 

IT'S BEEN A YEAR I WON'T SOON FORGET. Even without 09/11 and the new war, it's been one of those years, a prominent kind of landmark in the landscape of my life. It was, after all, the year when I got married -- something I was certain, even as recently as five years ago, would probably never happen. 

I remember 1996 drawing to a close, another anxious Christmas and another desperate New Year's Eve lunge at drink-fueled hope for the year to come that would already begin to subside into regret and embarassment with the next day's hangover. I didn't know that, within a year, I'd meet my future wife; that in two years I'd have to give up the apartment I'd clung to for over a decade, through bad roommates and worse landlords; that in 2001, instead of flying Pan-Am to the orbiting Hilton I'd be married in a Catholic church -- a modest local reproduction of a 16th century Roman basilica-- in a Latin ceremony, to a woman wearing a 1952 silk dress. I'd like to think I'd have the wit, then, to realize this was good news.

In 2001, I made less money than I've probably made since I worked retail. I wrote a magazine feature that, while not perfect, was probably the best thing I've done in a decade and a half as a journalist. I probably added barely another chapter or two to a novel that I can't bring myself to abandon. I pushed out another year of diary entries, improbably keeping alive the most ambitious writing project I've ever begun, for an audience of friends and strangers, many of them -- judging by a handful of e-mails -- an inspiringly accomplished bunch.

I took fewer photos than in any other year as a professional photographer, while feeling more confident of my work than I have since I bought my first camera. Every new year, as part of a January ritual that served to mitigate whatever optimism I might bring to the new year, I used to scrutinize my work from the previous year and decide whether I'd shown any improvement, whether there was any point continuing, whether I stood any chance of becoming the kind of photographer I used to envy and admire. This year, for the first year, I didn't bother with that ritual. While I could fit all the contact sheets from 2001 into a tidy, 8 1/2 by 11 manila envelope, I like everything I've done, see myself finally free from the anxiety of influence, doing work that looks like my work alone. If only I thought that anyone was paying attention.

I WANT TO FINISH MY NOVEL THIS YEAR. To that end, I'm taking it offline -- I'd rather not have the reminder of my unfinished business out there until it's more of a teaser and less of a taunt. I'd like to write another novel -- lately, I've become interested in two Biblical figures: Saul of Tarsus (otherwise known, after the whole thing on the road to Damascus as St. Paul) and Judas Iscariot. They're both troubling figures, the former a stern man, sometimes even a fanatic, the other a popular villain who was probably given a bad rap. There's a lot more to Judas than most people know. I think we should all try and understand Judas a bit more, especially given the Judases who've made the news these days.

SO, IN THE END, it all just telescopes down from the awful spectacle of planes slamming into towers to confused, unhappy children and their guilty, sorrowful families. I don't mean to sound all prosaic, but I suppose that's the only way we can hope to comprehend just what's happened.

I'm not at all surprised that unhappy strays like John Walker Lindh and Richard Reid have been hauled out of our troubled seas, flailing madly in the net -- according to the British press, yet another one has turned up, a Scotsman named McLintick, yet another troubled convert to Islam. The same response as well: "He seemed such a gentle soul..." I don't know, but it's the gentle souls that have had me scared for years now.

There's something so desperately hurtful about Reid's "suicide note" to his mother:  "You will never see me again. You had better all convert to Islam." You'll be sorry. I wish I'd never been born. It's just a shame all this misery couldn't have been fought out in a living room fight that ends in slammed doors, or in a nasty scene at the local mall. It just makes all the terror and death, the whole vast, pitiless machinery of our new war seem so banal.

I'm not complaining. I think these little dramas go a long way to making us understand how personal all this is, especially for the vast majority of us who've watched it all unfold on t.v., exempt from personal loss. I'd like to think that the John Walker Lindhs and Richard Reids -- as much as we might deplore them -- will bring the whole terrible scope of this war a bit closer to home.

After all, I'm sure we've all known someone like Lindh or Reid, respectively either the spoiled product of privileged dissent or a hopeless criminal's son. I'd like to think that we'll get beyond calling for the carpet-bombing of Berkeley or the summary detention of people who buy organic couscous or the regulars at Chez Panisse, but I'm not a hopeful person and besides, when you're on an ideological hunt, the easiest thing to catch is a scapegoat.


 
"Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason? / Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason."
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- Sir John Harrington
"Alcilia"

 
I thought this would be all about the year just passed, or about the nature of treason, but it turns out it was really about nostalgia, a subject that's been on my mind a lot lately.

THE WORST PART OF THE last few months has been this feeling of obligation, this notion that we have to banish any misgivings or objections we might have had to modernity, to pop culture, to American foreign policy or the west as a whole. I don't like the idea that suggesting that not everyone is in love with modern mass culture, that the U.S. State Department has been a tad shortsighted and in thrall to increasingly lazy iterations of Henry Kissinger's already crude realpolitik, that it's not unreasonable for the poor and badly governed to look for a villain, and that we might fit the role all too well, is somehow tantamount to treason, or symptomatic of a wooly-headed, sopping wet leftism. 

I don't like the idea that feeling a bit of empathy for the howling mobs in the much-discussed "Arab street" or a deep, troubling suspicion that the forced march into the future requires us to discard a bit too much essential baggage on the way is an open invitation for someone to suggest that "you should leave if you hate it so much". It's as if criticism, or even just unease, is suddenly untenable.

(I still reserve the right to regard Noam Chomsky and Robert Fisk as absurd, though. I just don't think they deserve jail sentences for being prats. Once upon a time, I had to restrain myself from punching the common room communists at college; today, I see them for what they were -- guilty rich kids trying to dress down.)

I know for a fact that some of the most articulate, vociferous defenders of the west in the wake of the attack have shown more than a hint of discomfort with the endless fountain of krep that seems to be the thrusting vanguard of popular culture. I can sympathize -- since I was a child, I've had a suspicion that the goods pouring from our horn of plenty, the embarassing quantity that almost seems like our birthright, came at some sacrifice of quality. It's hardly a unique observation, and everyone from Gore Vidal to Nancy Mitford to Bruce McCall to Studs Terkel has made it a chugging piston in the engine of their life's work, but no one is accusing them of being traitors. (Well, maybe Gore, but I get the feeling that he actually encourages the perception, whether he believes what he says or not. After all, if the reward is seeing someone like Wm. F. Buckley lose his cool on national television, I'd probably burn a few flags myself.) 

It lies behind the neo-Luddism of someone like Kirkpatrick Sale and the gently seething nostalgia of comic book artists like Chris Ware and my friend Seth; it explains the (to me, inexplicable) appeal of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegone, Ken Burns and Civil War re-enactment societies. It's generally regarded as nothing more than a harmless eccentricity or bit of lifestyle window dressing, like my gramophones, or K.'s collection of vintage housekeeping books, or my friend Scott's silent movie collection. In the case of someone like Sale, or Jerry Mander, or even Ralph Nader, it provided an almost venerable role in the benign, smugly-tolerated dissent that did little more than act as a quietly hissing pressure valve; the society, meanwhile, chugs at full steam into the future. It has no other option.

The only problem -- and I think I was going in this direction when I started this entry -- is that the future is a whole lot different, perhaps even worse, than even its fondest pursuers imagine.

AND SO, LINDH AND REID and McLintick and who knows how many others have emerged from the pit to hint that, never mind the howling "Arab street", there are people at home, people like us (inferring slyly that treasonous dissent is more natural coming from an immigrant -- shades of Sacco and Vanzetti) who have taken their distaste for Pepsi and Britney and "The Thong Song" and "Will and Grace" to the point where they want to destroy it all, good and bad. 

It's worth remembering that Lindh and Reid are young men, and that young men tend to embrace radical solutions without troubling second thoughts -- first thoughts, generally, take so much effort to form that there's little time for any others. It's a demographic truism that any society where young people -- young, unemployed men in particular -- make up a majority, is generally headed for turmoil. It happened here in the Sixties, and it's the scourge of Africa right now. It's why Europe and Japan -- aging and declining in population -- are quiescent, despite radical social changes and economic upheaval. It's hard to get people in the streets when they're worried about their bad knees or their aching hips. 

Richard Reid isn't hard to understand. He never had a chance, really -- the criminal dad, the broken home, the seemingly inevitable slide to petty crime. Prison isn't a place that encourages complex thought, and criminals tend not to be geniuses. His ineptness as a suicide bomber has been gloated over almost as much as the ineptness of French airport security. Since bravery is as uncommon as genius among criminals, I doubt if we'll see too many other Richard Reids now that the first one has run afoul of a handful of unarmed travellers. John Walker Lindh, however, raises a few more troubling thoughts.

It's easy to purse one's lips at the youthful hip hop obsession that apparently led to John Walker Lindh "discovering" Islam. Certainly, he becomes more objectionable -- and more commonplace -- when you read his BBS postings as a teenage "wigga", fighting the verbal skirmishes of teenage musical taste. It's just as easy to ridicule his tragic "spiritual quest", to heap scorn on parents all too happy to fund his jihad via American Express cash transfers. There's a kind of sour irony to be savoured in his journey away from the utopia of freedom and tolerance that his parents' generation imagined, to the Taliban's world of austerity, repression and brutality; easier still to mutter about the "death of flower power" and the false gods of the new age. 

It's just a bit harder to understand his attraction to that world. Harder still that it might strike a chord in a culture where simplicity, morality and "family values" are generally considered virtues. Part of me wants to lump Lindh in with the common-room communists that annoyed me so much in college, but I think he's different. There's an element of self-hatred in John Walker Lindh's embrace of the Taliban, and a bit of the petulant child's desire to shame his parents that he shares with Reid. I doubt if Lindh was an original thinker, which is why I'm certain that the warrior ascetic he imagined himself becoming was made up of bits of the outlaws, gangstas and action movie heroes he'd been watching his whole life -- Malcolm X, with bits of DMX and Wesley Snipes in Blade.

But that would be too simple -- the tired old media assumption that no one is greater than the sum of their crap pop culture, and I have a suspicion that Lindh ended up in Afghanistan because he wanted to be something more than that; just as we all do, though most of us stop short of treason. I'd say that I'm asking for some sympathy for the devil, except that I don't think Reid or Lindh were devils. Criminals probably, idiots maybe, or even dupes who should be tried for their terrible judgement and botched crimes, but our own, homegrown villains nevertheless, with little in common with Mohammed Atta, or Mullah Omar, or that sinister, tiresome cipher, Osama bin Laden.

HAPPY NEW YEAR. I swear I'll try to be more cheerful in this one. But I've made that promise before, and my record isn't that great.

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writing ©1998-2002 Rick McGinnis
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