ON THE EVE OF THE TAX BILL
The dreaded tax bill is coming up for a vote this week, and when insomnia strikes me, as it did these past few nights, I hover over the Senate chamber, above the white hair and the stale cologne, the dandruff-flaked Armani suits, the glimmering leather shoes swinging from a knee or crossed over the other foot. I'm there, imploring without words, hands up against my chest, my face long and morose, my heart knowing the likely outcome of the vote. I can see the electric counter on the TV screen recording each Nay and Yay, and the Nays slowing down after the Dems made their protest. The Yays hang in the void ready to be pushed over to 50, and then 51 when Pence leans over and depresses his Yay button to seal the deal. A sigh of relief rises from the well of the chamber, and the handshakes go around on the Republican side of the aisle. The gallery is full of solemn faces, and many up there are fully aware of what the near future holds for them and their children. The losses will be great and grow more severe as the years peel away. I fold my wings and hang from the wall as the lords of democracy file out back to their offices.
Who knows what will actually happen come Wednesday or Thursday, or whenever McConnell thinks he has the fix. Something could delay the vote, some little technical glitch, some sudden strategic detour required to bring in the last outlier, McCain, Collins, Johnson, or some other figure hiding in the shadows who knows that the bill, if passed, will eventually lead to the plundering of Medicare, Medicaid, and finally, Social Security to save the nation from capsizing under so much unexpected debt.
I fly home and tuck myself into the blankets of my warm bed, and tell myself that the mind at three a.m. is not the soberest or the sanest for predicting the future. I sleep lightly on that caution and wake with a dry mouth, thinking only of coffee. I need a good jolt of mud to start my engine. Once down in my office with my favorite brown cup, I gaze out of the windows at the metallic sky, the shredded aluminum clouds, the birdless wastes of autumn air. I am riveted to the dull reality of late November, a captive of great forces I cannot control, much less appeal to. The rich have won. They have taken office to protect their fellow captains of industry and commerce, and the poor, the fading middle class, the disappearing shreds of artisans and crafts people will, like the devil, take the hindmost.
Television lies at the heart of our woes and failures. It is our bread and circuses, our means for anesthetizing ourselves, for luring us into so much make believe we could no longer distinguish between real and false, between actual events and "fake news." We put away our books, forgot about newspapers, and like our fast food, consumed reports about the world that were highly processed and easily forgotten. We were warned against this terrifying future by Ezra Pound, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, by Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, by countless poets and essayists who saw what was coming over the horizon. The naysayers were never that popular with the mainstream audiences of Europe and America. They were dismissed as malcontents, misfits, loners, dark prophets and Cassandras. Take Adrienne Rich's poem, "Diving into the Wreck," which told us how distant the past had become once we descended through the depths of the sea and could gaze into the portals of a sunken ship where our ancestors had lived reasonably. We stared at the remains of a once familiar world of small towns, mom and pop stores, local politics, corny philosophers of the American way, the still orderly process by which one grew up and aged in a now flooded dream world.
Coming back from Thanksgiving dinner with my niece in the heartland of Connecticut, I could feel the blood slow in my veins at the sight of these quaint towns along the way, with wooden churches sitting up high in the middle of velvety soft lawns; white fences surrounding Cape Cod houses, as the stone chimneys dribbled wood smoke, the kind that smells like bacon when the wind is right. You can feel the traditions that secreted all those old gilt-framed portraits of portly New Englanders smiling in their fragile sunshine. They stood outside in the cold wind and smelled the past, not the future. They put on their wool coats and felt hats and walked in the woods, under the vast canopies of multicolored leaves, and followed paths that led home again, not into terror or fear, the awful nausea of a future of class rage and the drum beat of social upheaval.
It took many wounds and lacerations of the American soul to bring us to this impasse of vision. Vietnam inflicted the deepest pain, and made us see ourselves as no longer a super power but a menacing invader of other countries whose peasant soldiers could out-fight us, and make us beg for truce. We tumbled into Iraq and then Afghanistan under the false premise that we could rise once more to the victories of World War II. But the deserts of Iraq are the graveyard of empire, and Afghanistan outwitted the Soviet Union and brought it to its knees before we marched in, a band of fools led by an ignorant, unthinking president no more at home in the Oval Office than he was at Yale. The darkness filtered in like soot from the daily reports of our losses, the squandered treasure we heaped upon the illusion of winning. Television persuaded us to vote for such men, and to let them remain in office no matter their incompetence and deception.
Here's a speck of innocence on the limb of a nearby maple, a chipmunk sitting contentedly with his acorn in his tiny, human fingers. He is preoccupied with how best to apply his sharp teeth to the thick rind, and to taste the sweet, moist meat within. He has no other concerns for the moment. He has his burrow under the matted brown leaves, and the coyotes are not interested in digging him up. He has no money, no life insurance, no sense of future or past. He merely wants to taste the nut and swallow its pungent flavors and then climb a little higher to observe the world below. Not even the hawk will bother him when so many young wild turkeys are walking behind their elders without much awareness of danger. My chipmunk could easily be the soul I lost when I left boyhood. There it sits in that eternal summertime of the unconscious mind.
Meanwhile, the deal-making proceeds apace with the leaders of the caucus throwing sops to those few senators who wait coyly in the wings for something to take home to the voters come the Christmas recess. Something to assuage the hurt, the worry, the fear of losing Medicare just as the last of the Baby Boomers move into smaller houses and apartments and feel the first aches of old age. The great workforce of America, that built the empire from bare bricks and mortar, is being dealt one bad hand after another in the great poker game of power in America. Every school kid who has put his hand up over his heart and said, "I pledge allegiance" will feel the lash of the masters in time. But right now it is the generation hanging up its aprons and putting away its tools that will go home to the empty future.
Men are pulling on trousers and tying shoelaces who will cast a vote to undo the kindness of a nation that has rarely shown generosity to its motley immigrant populations. The masters who live in stately houses and come to work in limousines will sit before documents and graphs that tell very little about the nightmare traps that have been carefully constructed in the tax bill. No one with a conscience could vote for such a strangulating piece of legislation. But if you are wealthy and your children attend schools like Choate and St. Paul, and spend their summers on European vacations, then you have no clear image of the man sitting in his living room watching TV and not really listening to the double talk, the elusive logic that is now all that is left of our ability to govern.