“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into”

Jonathan Swift
"The Democrats have moved to the right, and the right has moved into a mental hospital." - Bill Maher
"The city is crowded my friends are away and I'm on my own
It's too hot to handle so I gotta get up and go

It's a cruel ... cruel summer"

Friday, September 29, 2006

I am Sam. Sam I am. Sam are we all.

My name is Samuel, Samuel.
My name is Samuel, Samuel.

My name is Samuel, an' I'll see you all in hell.

An' I'll see you all in hell,

Damn your eyes.

The graphic novel from which the above picture is taken—Uncle Sam, by Steve Darnall and Alex Ross—portrays a homeless, indigent and schizophrenic Uncle Sam who, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, has come “unstuck in time.” He drifts in and out of American history, always seeming to land on our ugliest moments: the Black Hawk War of 1832, the riots at the Ford factory in Dearborn, Michigan in 1932, Shay’s Rebellion.

It was soothing in a guilt-ridden sort of way to re-read Uncle Sam last night, after our elected officials had sanctioned torture and chipped a good-sized chunk off the thousand-year-old marble monument known as habeas corpus. It was a reminder that America has never lived up to her ideals, that we have always and ever aimed for far more than we were willing to achieve. Yesterday was particularly ugly. Habeas corpus was settled practice and law before the Magna Charta. It’s not ours to revoke, and it’s not only for our citizens. Satanic historical figures whose pitchforks W isn’t fit to carry have paid lip service to the writ through the centuries—and though it was often only lip service, we no longer even pay that much.

Still, the hope remains that—somehow—this, too, shall pass, that the great words written on the yellowed parchment will yank at our souls and our consciences until we cut and rip and tear the cancer from our own bodies. It will be as painful and as difficult to achieve as liquid fire, but we have done it before.

Every great artist seems to have a specific theme that runs through their life’s work. The late Johnny Cash, who sang the traditional lyrics quoted above on his American IV: The Man Comes Around album, produced an oeuvre largely about the eternal battle within all our souls between the repentant and the unrepentant sinner. The songs “Sam Hall” and “I Hung My Head” from that same album are both about murderers facing the gallows. “Sam Hall” tells the crowd gathered to watch his execution that he hates them “one and all.” He faces death with no remorse whatsoever. Cash sounds great, and real, and true singing the song.

But he sounds equally great, and real, and true in “I Hung My Head” when he sings
I prayed for God's mercy
For soon I'd be dead.
I hung my head.
I hung my head.
The conflict Cash presents rages in all our souls. There are so many questions that rose into so many newly-minted minds as humanity endured its eons-long march up from the swamps and down from the trees and away from animal instinct and into thought. One of those questions is Just how much should we care about the crimes we commit? Animals kill with impunity—with immunity from moral considerations. Thou shalt not kill, along with the Code of Hammurabi and Hittite Law made us something more.

We grew even more with further refinement of moral codes as the centuries wore on. One of those refinements was eventually termed habeas corpus.

We don’t always want to follow our own rules. Johnny Cash was the consummate American, and by that I mean the consummate human. His conflict is as American as—as what? Apple Pie?Similes fail. What on Earth could ever be as American as that simple conflict between penitence and remorselessness, between ideals and base desires, between the hairshirt self-denial of the Puritans and the hedonistic self-indulgence of the Baby Boomers?

Like Johnny Cash, we sometimes recognize that the things we do—torturing Arab people, wiping out Native American races, enslaving black people—are wrong, and we hang our heads. We repent. We promise to try—and sometimes we succeed, a little, just a little—to improve.

And sometimes—and this is what we did yesterday—we look at the rest of humanity, one and all, and we sneer, and we smirk, and we say We’ll see you all in Hell. Damn your eyes.