By Gustavo Arellano
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By Charles Lam
Photo by Johan VogelEternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
—Wendall PhillipsI've grown so ugly I don't even know myself.
—Robert Pete Williams
o, have we all managed to cross the vaunted bridge into the 21st century without jumping over the side at the realization that it is, of course, a toll bridge? If the exploitive trends of the closing century continue into this one, humanity will soon be little more than aphids, existing to be milked by our ant-like corporate masters, who will then sell the milk back to us with a smile, and maybe a few genetically modified additives.
I would like nothing better in the days ahead than to sit back and watch The Sopranos, but lately the two above quotes have been running through my head like a mantra. In trying to figure out why, I'm arriving at a different agenda, one in which pretty much everything must change.
This column was partly written over the holidays on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, where old-school eternal vigilance is newly tumescent, the stimulus being the nitro-laden, Bin Laden-lovin' Algerian who elected to cross into this country via the scenic Victoria-to-Port Angeles ferry. He had booked himself a room on New Year's Eve adjacent to Seattle's Space Needle—where thousands of persons were expected to be enjoying the millennial shift listening to Dave Alvin and others—and a flight out of the country the following morning. Did I remember to say allegedly?
Like most folks, I once assumed that "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty" was uttered by one of our Founding Fathers and that its message was that we must focus our flinty resolve beyond our borders, lest redcoats or Reds encroach. Nuh-uh. Phillips was a 19th-century abolitionist who said any number of cool things (including "The Puritan's idea of hell is where everybody has to mind his own business") and whose original tract from whence "eternal vigilance" was extracted meant something entirely different from what militarists would have us believe. I am damned if I can find that tract now, and I may even be making this up, but Reagan made stuff up all the time, and the difference is I'm right.
What I've derived from his quote is that our vigilance is actually supposed to be aimed inward, at our nation and ourselves, lest we opt for something less strenuous than liberty, which we have, dear friends.
We're willing to bomb people into a pâté in the name of democracy (or monarchy, if there's oil around), but we might as well be a feudal state at home. More wealth is controlled by fewer people than at any time in our history. On issues that affect all of us, such as the El Toro International Airport plan, we're reduced to having to pick which of the moneyed interests fighting over the spoils comes closest to representing our needs. We get toll roads where we want them, as long as it's also where a developer wants them.
And the folks we've supposedly nurtured and prepared for our freedom-loving way of life just can't be bothered. According to a study by the Department of Education, some three-quarters of high school seniors in the U.S. in 1998 knew as much about how our system of government works as a baboon does about pulling bubble gum out of its ass, the only difference being that I've actually seen a baboon accomplish this task with some degree of success, while I scarcely ever see young'uns at my local polling place. Nationally, in the last presidential election, fewer than 20 percent of those in the prized marketing demographic 18-to-25 age group bothered to vote.
This may be because our primate friend has some expectation of a favorable result, while even kids know that, vote how they will, government will still act in the interest of big money. Indeed, if our foreign policy were based on our genuine interests instead of the accumulation of power by a few, we probably wouldn't have foreign terrorists going around trying to blow up Dave Alvin.
The other quote that has recently been looping through my mind is that of Louisiana bluesman Robert Pete Williams. In his song "I've Grown So Ugly," Williams describes a typical morning, getting up, tying his shoes, etc., until suddenly the daily routine slips away from him and he experiences a moment of existential dread, in which he exclaims, "I've grown so ugly I don't even know myself," which cuts right to the quick of it.
Williams' life wasn't like yours or mine, unless you never went to school, started work at age 13 skinning cattle for 50 cents a day, and were sent to the notorious Angola prison for killing a man in a barroom fight. (Williams always claimed it was a case of mistaken identity—like maybe he mistook the deceased for a Henckels knife block.) Like Leadbelly before him, he literally sang his way out of prison, earning a parole through his musical talents.
A life not like ours, yes? Yet that instant in song, recorded in 1966, resonates through me as few lyrics do. Just lately life has similarly hit me: How the bejesus did I ever get so far from being the person I intended to be?
Somewhere down the line, the exceptions came to outnumber the rules I live by. I think of myself as a disciplined yoga-doin' kinda guy, but I never actually do yoga anymore. I think of myself as generous, yet I expend a boodle of time looking to see if people notice my generosity. I think of myself as socially conscious, but I didn't even notice the World Trade Organization (WTO) protest was brewing until it happened.
The WTO protests turned out to be one of the most significant and heartening events of the decade (though perhaps not as heartening for the protesters getting gassed and groin-kicked by the cops) and one of the few things giving hope for the years ahead. The WTO and trade agreements are not sexy topics, yet tens of thousands of people gathered in the streets of Seattle (with little advance word in the press, even the ostensibly alternative press), recognizing the threat of global policies that are blind to human rights and environmental concerns. As a friend who was there later told me, "It was one Mack Daddy protest."
If we want a future that doesn't blow, one that's of our own making rather than one bestowed upon us by Uncle Eisner and Unicorp., we're going to have to be more vigilant and involved, and since the only part of we that moves when I tell it to is me, I'm going to have to lively up myself and reconnect with the self I don't know anymore.
New Year's resolutions are as much bullshit as is the millennial hoopla that's been forced down our throats. But if one needs to change and there's a handy epochal event to tie it to, why not? From this bitchen Millennial Day forward, I resolve to aim toward a life that's more soulful and playful for all; to not let others carry my water for me, but to thank people and businesses who deserve thanks, and to spread scorn and boycott upon those who trammel; to work toward a true anti-mall, where the lion's share of the profit goes to the Third World workers who made an item; to help arrive at a world in which money is the least of things that is exchanged between us; and to do all this in time to watch The Sopranos because boy, do I love that show.