Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Concerning Existence

Thrust into the maelstrom of living. Inserted into my mother’s womb. Spawned on the bedrock of her uterus. Made to grow there as a result of the serendipitous convergence of resident egg and itinerant sperm. Carrying genes from both parents: yet another human hybrid among the millions born on the very day of my arrival. Plummeting into the human world under the supposedly watchful eye of a doctor probably bored with yet another birth in a city teaming with citizens on the brink of conception. Ready with his forceps at the portal of mother’s sex. Ready to draw out another life reluctant to make the journey unattended. The month: October, the day: the 18th, the year: 1944 and the place a working class neighborhood on Bathgate Avenue in the Bronx: a menagerie of dispositions, international in scope but decidedly provincial in attitude.

Life is a lottery: the numbers drawn from both genes and circumstance. Some of us win on all counts: great genes and an exceptional environment where the developing individual can reach the fullest potential. Others score on one count or the other: either awesome genes or an exceptional environment. The least fortunate fare poorly in regards to both.

The transient experience of living is brief by design, for humans are crafted by nature to create more of their own kind only to have their constituent molecules ultimately disrupted and recombined into new configurations so that all of life might prosper. We are subject to the laws of physics and the precepts of biology in spite of what new age dogma might suggest. Try as we might to defy gravity, no matter what new worlds humans might inhabit in the distant future, gravity will still rule. Regardless of how arrogance, disguised as wisdom, might suggest otherwise, our existence remains dependent upon the steady output of heat by the star we call our sun. Regardless of how tenacious our grip might be upon our possessions, ownership remains a convenient illusion that will evaporate when death overtakes us. We are born naked and that is how we will leave the world notwithstanding how many trinkets we may have adorned ourselves within a lifetime. The Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, driven by a grand delusion, had their followers erect fabulous tombs to house their treasures to be enjoyed in the afterlife, only to have them looted or collect dust in modern museums. Their gods failed them miserably, but somehow the followers of contemporary religions expect their rewards after death to remain intact.

I was catapulted into existence just as the Second Great Slaughter of the twentieth century was drawing to a ruinous close. The human conflagration that swept the world left fifty million dead. By chance, Italians like me on the European continent were on the losing side with much of their country devastated and Mussolini’s lifeless body left hanging upside down at a gas station. I was born in America and therefore was on the winning side. America gleefully took the high moral ground, as it continues to do today, even though it had dropped fearsome nuclear weapons on essentially civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki leaving carnage like never before experienced in the entire human history of warfare. It did this not simply to accelerate the ending of the war but also to show its utter contempt for the enemy and to make it clear to all future adversaries that it would go to any length to secure its ends. The nation has consistently pursued this kind of policy regarding international affairs ever since. It is a ruthless State not unlike that of ancient Rome.

My father worked for the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the war, and was not drafted much to the chagrin of the married women in our tenement whose husbands were overseas. The old neighborhood was filled with five story tenements housing people from around the world: Germans and Italians, Greeks and Puerto Ricans, Irish and Gypsies, Turks and Jews. It was crowded and noisy, chaotic and turbulent, yet it manifested a vitality that embraced the necessity for tolerance of all manner of human behavior. This kind of human diversity had a profound effect on the way I came to view life, for I realized at a very young age that there are many ways to live a life. Within this setting, I witnessed the end of the war and the beginning of the short-lived and overly exaggerated plastic prosperity that was heralded as the great ascendance of the American middle class. We took on the burgeoning new technology with great excitement. I was there at the twin births of the portable radio and the television: it was the beginning of a new age of telecommunications.

I was present when rock-n-roll became the medium for adolescents to challenge the status quo. I hung out in my best friend’s basement listening to Steve Taylor of the Fugs sing “Big Brown River” on his Hi-Fi. I can still vividly remember the beginning lyrics of this song: “I've been swimming in this river of shit
more than 20 years and I'm gettin' tired of it.” In the end, the potential for radio and television to be a medium for creative ideas and programming was never realized, for the public airways were ultimately co-opted by powerful corporate interests for their use in the inexorable movement towards an economy based on mass consumption.

The newly energized Republic became bloated on its own dollars, believing in its own invincibility, yet the nation felt grievously threatened by the growth and spread of Communism throughout the world. Communism was anti-capitalist and owed its advancement to the abuses of the capitalist system in many parts of the globe. White colonialism had been seriously weakened by the Great War, and the scars left by unfettered mercantile interests had made many of the poor peoples hungry for change. The successful Communist Chinese revolution and Stalin’s expansionist successes were blows to America’s newly found power.

When the Soviet Union successfully tested the nuclear weapons in the 50’s, hysteria became the national watchword. In school, we practiced responding to a nuclear attack by squirming under our desks, a joke of the highest order. We were given dog tags with our names and addressed emblazoned on the metal plates. I wore that plate around my neck with pride: I thought it was the coolest thing, entirely ignorant of its real purpose.

To further feed the growing hysteria, Senator McCarthy began his diatribes concerning the countless numbers of the communists that had supposedly infiltrated the government. This presumed threat had no real basis in fact: it was entirely manufactured. Many in the entertainment industry were also targeted. From this, the infamous black lists were created. This fear, finely honed by government propaganda, was effectively used to control the population. Fear and its bedfellow, hysteria, makes the population vulnerable to the dictates of the powerful; it makes the people too willing to relinquish their own power in exchange for what they are lead to believe is their enhanced safety.

Capital was busy building its machinery and required unobstructed access to resources both material and human. It required an uninterrupted supply of energy to feed itself. To do this, freedom needed to be curtailed, and democracy re-defined to fit these goals. Such is the nature of power. It is the way of human history and the rise of civilization for power to be concentrated into the hands of the few. Invariably, these oligarchs wreck havoc upon the lives of the many they supposedly represent. These excesses generally lead to the dissolution of empires.

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