In a small, prefab house on the coastal Carolina lowlands, an old man, the son of a son of a tobacco sharecropper, my wife’s father, lay dying. Even though the St. James Bible had been placed at his bedside, Fox Cable News served as his Psychopompus, conducting him up from this fallen world towards the flawless spires of the Beulah Land.
A vision: Across a blacktop highway, beneath a weather-flayed billboard that proclaimed “One Nation under God–”Bush/Cheney 2004,” in a field of desiccated corn stalks, gaunt, bearded, mullet-haired, crackhead Jesus rose from the shrouds of coke-smoke and drifted across the blacktop highway to raise the road kill from the dead.
“Crack makes me feel like Jesus ought to,” the billboard should have proclaimed … perhaps then an impassioned chorus of hosannas would have arisen from the country crackies congregated there.
Upon the perch of a mustard-yellow vinyl sofa cast out into the abandoned field amid the scrawny pine saplings and rusted-out farm tools, the old man’s grandson brought his bony knees to his chin and began rocking upon his meatless haunches, then he raised the crack pipe Eucharist to his parched, quivering lips, inhaled, and gave his life over to the Lord God of Dopamine.
Across the Low Country, the family farms are gone. Brutal trucks fulminate on the cracked blacktop highways. The swamps are being drained; its lumber plundered.
As doomed as the drought-desiccated cornstalks, the lives of the sons and daughters of moonshine-makers are now decimated by crystal meth and crack cocaine. Dust squalls in the dry fields; the future burns to crack ash.
The swamp has receded: Bear and bobcat are gone. Convenience stores, Wal*Mart superstores, strip malls and fast food joints choke the landscape where tenant farmers once struggled to survive.
The surrounding swamplands were once astoundingly beautiful. Even strangling vines of wisteria draped their dying hosts in exquisite purple blossoms. Although, in the eyes of the human inhabitants of the land, the beauty was only incidental — superfluous — only a relentless drive to survive was needed … All else fell away.
Presently, that inexorable drive remains only as a meaningless and hollow appetite. Fat people, clad in stretch clothing, are everywhere, while others are morbidly thin, having only an appetite that craves crack cocaine highs and crystal meth tweaking. Their hardscrabble survival instincts are gone — yet the relentless appetite remains. It’s terrifying: the way the urge towards life, when thwarted, can go over to its opposite, with equal vigor, revealing the death skull beneath the skin.
Our tragedy: This drive, this eternal appetite that forces life to its zenith, but instead delivers it to dust. This is what Walker Percy wrote of that internal landscape:
“Death in the form of death genes shall not prevail over me, for death genes are one thing but it is something else to name the death genes and know them and stand over against them and dare them. I am different from my death genes and therefore not subject to them. My father had the same death genes but he feared them and did not name them and thought he could roar out old Route 66 and stay ahead of them or grab me and be pals or play Brahms and keep them, the death genes, happy, so he fell prey to them.”
Yet this variety of tragic consanguinity is not limited to the doomed hinterlands, for it rules the order of the present day as well. The Death Genes lord over the American empire. Accordingly, an empire destroys nearly everything it touches, because, after a time, it begins to exist for no other reason other than to perpetuate its own existence. Within it, its subjects’ lives lose meaning and purpose: meaningless work, petty ambition, and endless appetite define the days, resulting in a decimated (internal as well as external) landscape — the hollowed-out lives of its populace –”- and the concomitant death cult convergence of religious fundamentalism and habitual consumerism that follow.
The corporate empire has imprinted the Death Genes within us — and it is made manifest before us in the world we have created. It is as visible as the noxious vapors of pollutants veiling the horizon line at sunset. It shimmers like heat spires above our traffic-stalled interstates. It reeks like the endless archipelagos of overflowing landfills spanning the length of the land. The Death Genes hold us, as we hold a TV remote in our hands and when the news turns tragic it moves us to tremble with excitement and barely concealed glee.
Fox Cable News, like the jackal-headed, carrion-eating god, Anubus, leads the old man through the land of the dead: Through the now dried-up swamplands of his youth … through the limbo of suburbs and exurbs that displaced it … The old man is led past rural, crystal meth labs, and pharmaceutical plants, and Starbucks Coffee cafÃ©s, where pale shades receive the libation needed to provisionally pass for the living; the guide and his charge linger in pawn shops, gun stores (so many gun stores) and firing ranges — all temples devoted to the true higher power of the American empire — the God of Death — locations where the grim God gathers sustenance and strength, drawing energy from the nation’s emanations of hatred, fear, and aggression like a reptile luxuriating on a sun-heated rock; and finally, they arrive at a small mortuary where they listen to a self-satisfied Baptist minister delivering the old man’s eulogy — a sermon devoted to the love and worship of the God of Death (for the joys of this world are wicked and will deny entry into the perfect one to come) as all the while, the preacher takes measure of the old man’s shrunken corpse, laid out in his open casket, like a used car salesman accessing the resale value of a Ford Pinto with a cracked engine block.
The ground now holds and begins the process of decomposing the remains of the old man’s body, in tragic symmetry to the manner in which the neo-plantation system of tenant farming held his youth and composed the contradictions of his gentle/angry, generous/spiteful, humble/racist mind.
Yet these confounding and contradictory attributes of the southern psyche will not be dissolved into dirt: Traits of habitual submission to authority, of hostile defiance against any hint of outside interference in their lives, of fierce loyalty to one’s kin and unquestioning devotion to the place of one’s birth, of reflexive racial hatred and resistance to change, of moonshine revelry and anguished come-to-Jesus recantations of sin will live on through the old man’s progeny.
Those characteristics worked to the benefit of the ruling elite of the post-plantation southland and now provide the same service for the lords of the corporate empire: At present, given that our lives must be surrendered to long hours of exploitive labor and that we’re offered little hope of ever removing the overseer’s boot from our throats, we have come to share an affinity of exploitation with the laboring class rabble of the old south. From the cotton and tobacco fields of the (allegedly) bygone feudalist order, up to the present-day low pay, no benefits jobs of the so-called “service sector economy” (where vast numbers of us can only keep a roof over our heads, inexpensive junk food in our bellies, and Wal*Mart quality clothes on our backs by assuming crushing debt) — those hope-decimating, labor practices and company town credit schemes (although, nowadays, slicker and less overt) are still with us.
Also, mirroring the values of Old Dixie, so many of us Americans, regardless of region, share an unquestioning loyalty to military tradition — a pernicious, collective pathology that glorifies the squandering of one’s life in wars that serve to profit the narrow interests of a small, self-serving, aristocratic class. Ergo, from the so-called “War of Northern Aggression” right up to the equally absurdly titled “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” the mistaking of blind faith for heroic sacrifice persists.
Moreover, as was the case with so many poverty-stricken whites in the Deep South, the inequities of the present order have endowed many contemporary Americans with a sense of nebulous rage and nettling resentment begot by having one’s spirit repeatedly crushed by the inhuman demands of a seeming implacable system. Then as now, these anguished sentiments rise, tragically, displaced as fear, resentment, and hatred of minorities, homosexuals, reformers, and outsiders … From the Klan meetings, the Jim Crow laws, and the lynching of the bad-old-days of Dixieland, right up to the right wing hate-speak of talk radio, the de facto segregation of gated, suburban subdivisions, and the Christofascistic queer bashing of these bad-new-days — the hateful legacies linger.
But an existence comprised of such criteria depletes one’s life of meaning, in a similar manner as the repeated planting of cotton leeched the life-sustaining soil of the old south of vital nutrients. The vitality of existence withers and falls away and is soon supplanted by the seeds of the Death Genes. Then the landscape turns ugly; children grow hollow-eyed, empty, and ignorant; passion and purpose dry up and are replaced by insatiable cravings and nameless dread; dreams turn to dust and rise from the arid land as blinding squalls of paranoid delusions.
Thus Empire holds us in its death embrace. Grasping for air, we besiege the indifferent sky as to how we might loosen its pitiless grip.
So then, how might we gain our freedom?
Shall we proffer a polite request to the masters of the empire … that they might consider, at their leisure, removing their bony hands from our throats? Yes, and that would yield about the degree of success the old man would have if he petitioned the devouring earth to reconstitute his decomposing flesh.
Shall we always take care to speak reasonably, with cautious words, uttered in measured tones to our betters — then, perhaps, the elite of the corporate media will, for a moment, cease their shilling for the prevailing order and begin to disseminate a modicum of our perspective? Yes, and the song of cicada will soften into a soothing hymn.
Shall we bow our heads and humbly ask the mindless mobs of the consumer state to abstain from looting the planet of its life-sustaining resources? Yes, and the draping Spanish moss of the lowland marshes will henceforth show mercy to the trees they suffocate.
And then, perhaps, the bright day will dawn — when the rulers of the empire will alter the course of its death-bound trajectory and suffer remorse for the fates of those they have crushed beneath them. Yes, such an event will come to pass — around the time the alligators of the swamp cultivate a fondness from vegetarian cuisine.
The neo-plantation system of the corporate empire stands before us and within us: It has molded our lives and perceptions as thoroughly as the old south’s stratified society of landed gentry and tenant farmer rabble molded the life and perceptions of my wife’s departed father.
We, the subjects of this empire, bear the Death Genes. As my fellow southerner, Walker Percy pointed out, the best way to survive our Death Genes is to face them and name them — and never suffer from the deadly delusion that you can deny them, reason with them, or outrun them… for you carry them within you.
When we face the empire, we face ourselves. To survive, it is imperative that we cease to lie to ourselves about our condition.
Although to do so will not prove to be our redemption: Those pat solutions are only to be found in crack pipes and fundamentalists’ sermons. The Fox News Channel will not guide us to the Beulah Land. And Jesus will not raise the road kill from the dead. Yet knowing a few sad truths about ourselves will allow us to see the world and its terrifying beauty with greater clarity.
And by this act we are strengthened. It gives us the courage to love. We can meet one another in spring fields of green corn, where the Death Genes loosen their grip and the wit of the world remains.