Monday, August 01, 2011

The War on the Present

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

You see it in the city all the time, the big crane and wrecking ball bringing down whole blocks of perfectly good tenements or warehouses that people were living in until the week before. Destruction seems cheaper than renovating, and besides you can usually build higher, construct more apartments, more offices. Make more money. Make your mark. I think of it as a kind of transmogrification of the flesh.

You see it in politics, too. Those impatient, uncompromising extremists from both the right and left trying to bring a government to its knees, destroy it altogether. Tea, anyone? If they only had a blank slate, an empty lot, then anything is possible. A few go so far as to mow down whole classes of people. What are they but old stones standing in the way of the glorious future, or the even more glorious past? Toss gypsies or queers in jails or concentration camps. Get out the wrecking ball for landowners, native peoples, Jews, Armenians. The teenaged supporters of the Social Democrats -- the governing party in Norway.

I'd like to say I don't understand at all, how Anders Behring Breivik could slaughter all those kids to resurrect a Muslim-free Europe. Or jihadists can kill thousands of people imagining that the fall of something like the World Trade Center would bring down World Trade itself and somehow make room for the Grand Caliphate 2.0 to reemerge. But the destructive impulse belongs to us all.

Who hasn't wanted to wipe the smiles off smug faces, or maybe erase the faces themselves? Who hasn't yearned for a moment to throw off the yoke of society, and the smothering burdens of history or family and culture? In college, an artist friend of mine spent a lot of time fantasizing about invading museums with a squirt gun full of acid and taking out every painting in sight. And with all that gone maybe he could create something new, express himself without all that weight around his neck.

Plenty of queers would have preferred to see the end of marriage altogether, rather than add same-sex couples to the already unsavory mix. You don't want to be like your parents. And you can't bring down the master's house with the master's tools and all that. Though American history says you can at least change the inhabitants. We have a black president in the White House.

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times had an enormous photo of Mayor Bloomberg, the two guys he joined in marriage, and their little girls. I think they were at Gracie Mansion. It didn't take bombs, just a hell of a lot of work. We can always hope that now we've joined the marriage club, the whole unworkable structure will collapse from the weight.

Often, the destructive impulse would remain just a brief urge without a network of religious thought behind it. Not just because the perpetrators are often true believers, but because it's usually religion that shapes how we understand what change is and the role it plays.

A couple days after the slaughter in Norway, I was walking home from the Laundromat and saw a woman with an enormous wooden cross hanging from her neck. There was a human figure nailed to it, preparing for death and resurrection. I grew up with the image of the cross, and don't usually think much about it. But as big as it was, with a tortured human figure hanging from it, I suddenly thought, What a barbaric thing to worship. Worse, there's no more dangerous model of change than transformation through violence. Or sudden miracles for that matter. There is nothing incremental about that whole water to wine thing. The best, the only change, is violent, quick, and totally transformative.

No wonder, even direct action and street protest aren't quick enough for the destructive character. They don't just hate Muslims, or queers, or Jews. Or Democrats. Or Republicans. They hate time itself. Being constrained to this moment where they are not free to rearrange history or perfectly manipulate the future. They are furious at the compromised present. The bricks and mortar. Our limiting flesh. The way things are. They don't just want to redeem the world or create change, but annihilate everything.

Lately, I've started to wish for more real atheists, more agnostics, more people who believe this world is all there is, and this moment is all we have. Forget any magic wrecking ball that will clear away the present and resurrect the past or propel us into a perfect, heavenly future. This is all we've got. Hard as it is to accept, our future like our past is rooted here. You have to claim it to move on. Like my friend who wanted to acid blast art, but conserves it now.

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