May Day, May Day
"The Soviet Government is the only Government in the world which is unhesitatingly championing the unity and independence, freedom and sovereignty of Turkey and Persia, Afghanistan and China… The oppressed masses sympathize with the Soviet Union because they regard it as their ally in the cause of emancipation from imperialism."
–J.V. Stalin, Concerning the International Situation, 1953
"We are committed to freedom in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and in a peaceful Palestine. The advance of freedom is the surest strategy to undermine the appeal of terror in the world."
–George W. Bush, last week
WELCOME to the U.S.S.A.–the United Soviet States of America. The Winter Palace was officially stormed last week, on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. The proletariat finally has its dictatorship.
I had not planned on watching George Bush’s "Top Gun" speech last Thursday night. I didn’t think that I could handle it. My mental health has not been so good lately. I hadn’t watched television since the second week of the war, because I was beginning to experience painful headaches and hallucinations.
A change in diet and a month away from tv eased the symptoms, but when I broke my vows last week–to watch the NFL draft–they came back in a hurry. Less than an hour into the ESPN broadcast, I was deep into a nightmarish fantasy in which I imagined I was watching NFL coaches select the next Jews for the oven. I’d watch Paul Tagliabue ascend to the podium, and I’d hear: "With the fourth selection in the draft, the New York Jets select…Moishe Kimmelman." Cheers, scattered boos, etc.; spindly Polish banker holding up his new red-and-white pajamas for the sporting press…
So I went off tv again. My nights were still strange. Last Tuesday I spent eight dollars in quarters while quietly eating dinner (a Blimpie tunafish sub) in a private viewing booth of a porn parlor on 42nd St. Four simultaneous screens of grunting, fucking and sucking: more calming than television. Then, last Thursday night, I tried to go to a National Day of Prayer service at the Calvary Baptist Church on 57th St. (it had been recommended by one of the many evangelical news groups I subscribe to), and somehow instead ended up, by means of some frightening unconscious accident, at the Ellen Degeneres Show at the Beacon theater.
Clearly, I needed some rest. So I went home–and made the mistake of turning on the television. A half hour later, I was watching a shot of George Bush waving goodbye to a throng of adoring sailors dissolve into a black screen, leading to the chilling voice-over that I did not imagine: "We now return to Friends, already in progress."
It was at that moment that my headaches went away, and I realized that I had woken up in the Soviet Union.
It has become fashionable on the left and in Western Europe to compare the Bush administration to the Nazis. The comparison is not without some superficial merit. In both cases the government is run by a small gang of snickering, stupid thugs whose vision of paradise is full of explosions and beautifully designed prisons. Toss in the desert fatigues motif and the "self-defense" invasion tactic, and there does seem to be a good case.
But it’s way off. It’s wishful thinking. The Reich only lasted 12 years. The Soviets reigned for 75. They were better at it than the Nazis, and we’re better at it than the Russians. Ask anyone who’s lived in a communist country, and he’ll tell you: Modern America is deja vu all over again. And if ever there was a Soviet spectacle, it was Bush’s speech last week.
Think about it. Huge weapons on display, in foreground and background. The leader who has never fought dressed in full military regalia. Crowds of adoring soldiers and "shock worker" types dressed in colorful costumes, carefully arranged for the cameras. A terrible, excruciatingly dull speech, 20 minutes of incoherent, redundant patriotism (Bush used the words "free" or "freedom" 19 times in an 1800-word speech) and chimpanzoid chest-pounding.
On May Day.
That was Red Square every year for about 70 straight years. And now it is a most natural fit in our society.
The genius of the Soviet system–and now the genius of ours–was that it appealed not to the hatreds and passions of its people, but to other, more dependable qualities: laziness, banality, drunkenness, cowardice. It gave you a piece of sausage and a bottle of vodka and asked only that you take a few minutes to cheer some pictures of tanks rolling into Prague. Its leaders (with the exception of Stalin) were a succession of Bush-like plodders who were dumber than your chimney-sweep uncle and could barely speak their own language. For vacations it sent you to Bulgaria or Sevastopol because anywhere that was really abroad was "not safe." And when you were in Bulgaria, you were thrilled to find that just across the street from your hotel, they had the same "Cafeteria #6" that you had back in Magadan or Vologda or whatever dank hole you came from.
It’s no wonder that McDonald’s is such a hit in modern Russia.
The genius of the Soviet Union was that it was deep. It was pervasive; its essence ran through the entire society, and after a while did not need to be imposed from above. The drunken slob collapsed in a Siberian train station was the same person as the ruler of the country. As if through one mouth it spent 70 years babbling voluminously in every direction about nothing, while behind the scenes it quietly lived off slave labor and human flesh. It worshipped talentless celebrities and genuinely preferred its atrocious, flavorless food to the great cuisines of the outside world.
Jennifer Lopez and Tom Clancy would have been perfect fits in the Soviet Union; they would have worn medals in public and ridden the trains for free. The mechanism is a little different here–but the monolithic, irresistible instinct toward mediocrity is the same.
So is the fawning sentimentality, and the preposterous fake idealism. In Soviet times, a man who was afraid to speak frankly on any topic in front of his own children and whose neighbor had disappeared two days before was capable of shedding real tears over the plight of the American Negro, a popular Soviet cause for decades. You see the same thing here in the States: no job, no health insurance, fucked for life by the credit bureaus, but swelling with pride over the sight of an Iraqi child with a candy bar.
Modern observers look back at the early Soviet days and wonder how it is that people could possibly have believed those fantastic tales they read about in the state papers–the lurid descriptions of fascist terrorists and wreckers who conspired to poison reservoirs and turn up rails and put broken glass in sausage in the most faraway, seemingly irrelevant places in Siberia and the far north. The answer probably is that they wanted to believe them. Because that was what was in their hearts. It wasn’t a lie that was being put over on them. It came from them.
Few sane people survived those early years to pass on genes to the next generation. The ones who did remained in careful hiding for decades while they waited for the beast to rot from within.
That may be our only hope in the States, because the problem isn’t removing George Bush. It’s the rest of it. This whole thing, all around us, is a package deal. From war all the way back to Friends, already in progress. A monster that mighty doesn’t need a f
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