Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Listening to Limbaugh on the Long Drive

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Situation:  dire.  Traffic: a rollover semi- on 80-94 blocked all lanes and traffic was at a dead stop from the Indiana Tollway to the city. 90 minute delays at O’Hare.  Lake Shore Drive a mess both directions from Hyde Park to Hollywood.  Weather:  wind gusts to 55 miles an hour out of the northeast:  waves topping the seawalls and spume making visibility bad on Lake Shore; gusts from all directions toppling the double- and triple-trailers carrying some of the early Christmas packages from Amazon and REI and the just-in-time inventory to Macy’s and Nordstrom The Rack.

Fourteen hours of driving straight through yesterday:  tired to the bone in the way that constant tension and no movement for many hours leaves you.  Also cranky, grumpy, short-tempered from the persistent necessity for compromise:  music or silence; stadium-anthem country or bad oldies. As the road darkened, the rain started, and the driving got harder. The news, usually a respite, was full of self-important commentaries on the Egyptian election, a subject long past its allegorical value, and discussions of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, subjects years out of date.  Rush Limbaugh was even hawking Cyber Monday on his radio show, pushing a Two-If-By-Tea mugset with the promotion code cybermon, though he’d gotten it wrong for the first half of the show.  When he began baiting an Occupy Wall Street caller--  of course corporations are people:  the Supreme Court said so!; of course money is speech: haven’t you ever heard the phrase “money talks?”—the level of demagoguery, normally interesting, had both of us reaching to turn the radio off.

These are times when it is hard to have spent one’s life in pursuit of rationality.  It started in first grade; Pa  gave me a Wesclox wind-up with two bells on the top to take apart and put back together again, after I asked him how clocks told time. When the car pulls to the left on the Ohio Turnpike, it might take an hour to calculate all the possible causes and the odds for each:  angling of the roadway by rational highway engineers seeking to control runoff; one tire underinflated; wind steady and strong from the southeast; misalignment; worn strut; suspension damaged by the deer that leapt into the front right headlight and caromed into the ditch on Thanksgiving night, leaving a baseball-sized dent and swatches of stiff fur imbedded where the light met the bumper.  Then:  the odds that a deer leaping across the highway would hit your car; the question of whether driving faster would lessen or increase the odds; calculating the angle of sight at various speeds and the predictability of behavior of any given deer.

This is dull stuff. Describing a rational sequence, language loses its color and rhythm, and there’s little room for the play of rhetoric—an idea underneath percolating up toward the surface of the writing’s consciousness and then hovering for a moment before sinking under the weight of details and distractions precisely weighed as the keyboard clicks first fast then slow, interspersed with erratic silences as the mind retreats from expression to thought and calculation, then returns to the pouring of words into the unvoiced ear of an imaginary reader.

Dull stuff, but it is what I believe in, not religiously, the way Grandma Catherine believes all things are here for a reason, but empirically, because from these careful tracks of logic something comes that can be verified and, when verified, can be extrapolated to the next circumstance.  This is not what Rush Limbaugh practices.  It is, indeed, what he abhors, fears, rails against.  He knows nothing of the scientific method that has liberated us from cholera and made his ubiquitous voice possible.  He knows nothing of the triumphant logic of athletic training, where regimen is built of precedent tested and modified by specifics:  he is fat and loud and, when you listen carefully, you can hear that he has lost his wind from the nicotine and the bad food.  When hospitalized with chest pains, he depended on doctors trained in the rational world he abjurs.  Even in the car, hours into the long drive away from the place that is ours, from the rattle of locust seedpods on the roof and the rustle of mice in the walls and the surprise of mist on the hayfield in the hour of sunrise, I knew better than to be angry at a stupid mouthpiece selling mugsets with his picture on them to people who thought being flimflammed for $14 was a patriotic act.  I knew better, but my hands were still tight on the wheel and I was hunched over as if punched in the stomach.

It is embarrassing being caught out as an American patriot at a moment like that.  For as we switched the radio from Rush to Chris Young singing I Hear Voices on Froggy99, the big-country station, I knew I’d been brought back to my profound and unyielding love of my country, right or wrong.  This is what I have spent my life fighting against, within and without, and I have lost every battle, within and without.  

Limbaugh’s back-to-back combination of hypocrisy (so then, Rush, this must mean that abortion is legal and right, since the Supreme Court has repeatedly said so) and linguistic stupidity (so all analogic phrases must be read literally; no analogic figures of speech are allowed to be ironic?) was only a moment in a long season of willful hypocrisies and stupidities awash in American mass culture. For a moment, there, taut with impotent rage against this moment and this turn of things and this mouthpiece of malapropisms and misinformation, I thought to myself: it has never been this bad.

But of course it has.  It’s been way, way worse.  When my great-grandfather settled in Provo, Utah in the 1890s, the nation was awash in plutocracy, a flood more influential even than today.  Today the politicians of the right, and to my shame and sorrow, of the left as well, keep the bribe-money in legal accounts.  In the ‘90s, they installed safes in their offices to keep the cash from the oil companies and the meatpackers and the steelmill owners and the bankers. In the ‘30s, Father Coughlin rode the radio waves with weekly addresses that Rush has surely studied, though rarely surmounted. When my father returned from the war, his eyes still yellow from hepatitis and his hands still shaky with weakness, he had a few years to recover his health and his hopes before McCarthy swept through the public eye, before Richard Nixon, running for Congress against Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950 smeared her as a Communist fellow-traveler.  My first vote for President was a vote against the same Richard Nixon. Right and left may be equally frail and quick to surrender to temptation, but American demagogues come from the right, and they feed on fear and play on patriotism.

It’s been worse.  I can say that this morning, with the wind gusts ruffling the fur around the dog’s face so she looks beleaguered and irritable, and we lean into it to watch the woman walk south to the bus-stop, waiting for her to turn around and wave, once more, as she always does.  I can say it this morning, looking at the front yards of the well-kept two- and three-flats on my Ukrainian Village street in Chicago, each yard now tidily cleared of the controlled riots of sunflowers and roses and daffodils and daylilies and black-eyed susans in the midst of which you might have seen, in midsummer, a small ceramic statue of the Virgin, or of St. Andrew, the patron saint of the home country, or St. Michael The Archangel, patron of Kiev.  The weekend before I left to meet her at the farm, my bag full of apples for the Thanksgiving pie and untidy printouts of recipes stuck into the piles of papers to grade, I had walked back and forth along the streets and watched the older couples weeding and clearing, putting saran wrap and traffic cones over the rose bushes and raking the last small leaves out from in between the small, well-trimmed evergreens.

We will make it through this one.  But it won’t be easy. It’s never easy.  They’ll pull the driver out of the semi-, alive or dead, and they’ll pull the twisted metal to the side, and the cars will get by on the shoulder and everyone will stay later tonight as a consequence, just to get the work done. The sand- and mud-spattered cars on Lake Shore Drive will pull into the handwash on Clark or Broadway or on Dodge in Evanston or up at Clark’s in Naperville tomorrow or over the weekend, and the illegal Mexican workers will clean them off, vacuum out the insides, leave the stray dollar bills and the lost watch and the spare change in a neat pile on the passenger seat.  In a decade or a generation, they’ll be citizens, or their children will, Rush to the contrary.  Already there’s a Mexican restaurant in a beat-up RV parked by the Pilot truckstop off I-80 in western Pennsylvania, and the kids driving back to college and the truckers carrying the Christmas inventories from the container sites in Jersey City to the stores in Pittsburgh and Youngstown and Cleveland were lined up with us, waiting for the tamales. One of them, weathered and big-bellied, ordered three, and when he climbed up into the cab and shut the door, I saw it was festooned with Limbaugh bumper stickers.

I hope they pull that trucker out unharmed.  I hope, in any case, that it isn’t any of the truckers we were jockeying with all day yesterday. I even hope it’s not the one with the three tamales, the one who gave us a little wave and a smile as he pulled out in front of our old car, packed tight, with the old dog enthroned in the back seat, heading back from one place to another.

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