16 September 2006

Scalp-hunters

I’m reading a book by Cormac McCarthy called “Blood Meridian.” It’s a western, but unlike any other western I’ve read in my life. In it, the author describes a world that is totally amoral, a world in which people kill each other with stunning off-handedness. Human life has no value. “Survival of the fittest” applies here in a way that would leave the anti-Darwinists among us slack-jawed.

The story takes place in the 1850s along the Texas-Mexico border. McCarthy’s prose is so starkly beautiful that it’s almost a relief from the unrelenting, mindless cruelty and misery his words depict. Based on historical papers, “Blood Meridian” describes a world where cowboys and Indians slaughter and scalp each other and where some cowboys are making a lucrative profit selling Indian scalps. The line between good and evil is so obscure that it’s all but invisible.

Reading about that world from my vantage point today is jarring. I can’t help but think about how far Americans have progressed in the mere 150 or so years since the time depicted in McCarthy’s novel. It’s hard to reconcile the world of “Blood Meridian,” with its casual slaughter and gore and its filthy idiot cowboys with today’s sparkling grocery stores, McMansions, SUVs, laptop computers, polo shirts, Dockers and athletic shoes that light up when you walk. We might be living on a different planet, not just in a different time in American history.

And yet ... and yet. The old saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same” comes to mind.

Just the other day, the President of the United States lobbied Congress to validate and approve his ongoing practice of torture as a necessity in our trumped-up “War on Terror.”

The characters in “Blood Meridian” would have recognized George W. Bush instantly, but I don’t think he’d have lasted long enough in their world to do the kind of damage he’s done in ours. Someone would have, without the least regret, shot him in the face or gouged his eyes out and slashed his throat with the jagged end of a smashed whiskey bottle.

An editorial in Friday’s Washington Post had this to say about Bush’s shyster visit to our Congressional leaders:

PRESIDENT BUSH rarely visits Congress. So it was a measure of his painfully skewed priorities that Mr. Bush made the unaccustomed trip yesterday to seek legislative permission for the CIA to make people disappear into secret prisons and have information extracted from them by means he dare not describe publicly.

Of course, Mr. Bush didn't come out and say he's lobbying for torture. Instead he refers to "an alternative set of procedures" for interrogation. But the administration no longer conceals what it wants. It wants authorization for the CIA to hide detainees in overseas prisons where even the International Committee of the Red Cross won't have access. It wants permission to interrogate those detainees with abusive practices that in the past have included induced hypothermia and "waterboarding," or simulated drowning. And it wants the right to try such detainees, and perhaps sentence them to death, on the basis of evidence that the defendants cannot see and that may have been extracted during those abusive interrogation sessions.

I pick up a book written with talent and craft – even genius -- and find myself, shuddering, transported to world in which everyday people are slope-shouldered monsters, cold-blooded killers with no sense of morality and only the barest shellac of civilization.

Then I read today’s news about what our leaders have in mind for our country, and realize with a jolt how short a time 150 years really is. With their brand-named, snake-oil War on Terror, the Bush Administration seems very much like the cowboy scalp-hunters in “Blood Meridian.” Already, they’ve transformed Iraq from a relatively modern country into an abattoir in which human life has little value, only the strongest survive for long and the corrupt of mind and soul gleefully exploit the situation and rake in the cash.

They’ve made all Americans unwitting accomplices to their whooping, degenerate rampage of death and destruction. Now, they’re pushing us to join the scalp-hunters willingly, with our eyes wide open, and sell our souls.

*Thanks to Tbogg, that “somewhat popular blogger,” for his post on “Blood Meridian,” which inspired me to buy and read the book.

Update: Billmon at Whiskey Bar takes a clear-eyed look at what tossing away the Geneva Conventions regarding torture would do to America. And Glenn Greenwald walks us through the legal forest of Arlen Specter's flimflamming warrantless wiretapping bill so we can see the trees. Please go read both posts. They're excellent.

6 comments:

Max said...

My attention span tends to be a little short for the reading of Cormac McCarthy, but you've convinced me to give Blood Meridian a try. Even though current events are already giving me Final Solution nightmares.
I'm really enjoying your blog--it's a pleasure to come across something on the 'Net that is so consistently well-written.

yours in the struggle,
Max

Blue Wren said...

Awww Max, you just made my whole day. Thanks!

I never really have "time" to read a book anymore. So, I multitask. I have a "loobrary," (a book-basket in the, uh, you-know). In it are a couple of books, which I read a half-chapter or so at a time, and some magazines, like Harpers, Columbia Journalism Review and (for when I need to see pretty people and read good stuff, too) Vanity Fair.

You should try it. It's great for new-millennium multitasking. I must say, though, that "Blood Meridian" tends to tighten things up a bit. ;o)

Wil Morat said...

An excellent comparison...but, I must take issue with one point.

You seem to label Bush and his war cabinet as the "scalphunters." But it was the Democrats in Congress that voted for the war. It was those Democrats that didn't challenge the information and "pseudo-intelligence" they were being spoon-fed leading up to the war.

Yes, much of the current crisis (actually, now I guess it's "trench warfare) in Iraq is because of Bush and his war-mongering neo-con buddies that have a new "vision for the Middle East" bolstered by their own religious beliefs...but many Democrats went right along with it.

And now, as an encore performance of the "war of misinformation" plays out surrounding Iran...the Democrats are once again falling in line - buying every piece of "evidence" about "Iran wanting to take over the world" hook, line and sinker.

Bush and Co. may be the scalphunters...but Democrats are buying the scalps.

The Heretik said...

Reading more never made anybody understand less.

Mike Kretzler said...

The power of McCarthy's writing (I think I've read them all) comes from how stripped-down the world he describes is. It's the same world we live in now. We're not any better or more moral than his characters. We just have more elaborate illusions, more layers of rationalization and denial. Watching what has happened to our country -- Democrats included -- just brings it to where it's harder to ignore (though plenty still manage to).

Kevin Wolf said...

Between this post and a friend's recent rave about No Country For Old Men, he's on my list to catch up with.

As for Bush, I can hardly find words anymore.