In a small, prefab house in the coastal Carolina lowlands, an old man, the son of a son of 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 the blacktop highway, beneath a 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 that had been 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 his raised the crack pipe Eucharist to his parched, quivering lips, inhaled, and gave his life over to the Lord God of Dopamine.
Across the lowlands, the family farms are gone. Brutal trucks fulminated on the cracked blacktop highways. The swamps are being drained; its lumber plundered.
As doomed as the drought-dessicated 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. But, in the eyes of the human inhabitants of 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 clothes, are everywhere, while many of those who are thin have an appetite that craves the crack pipe.
The hardscrabble survival instincts are gone—but the relentless appetite remains.
It’s terrifying: The way the urge toward life, when thwarted, can go over to its opposite, with equal vigor, and reveals 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.”
That variety of tragic consanguinity is not limited to the doomed hinterlands. It rules the order of the present day as well. The Death Gene lords over the American empire. 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 the empire, its subjects’ lives lose meaning and purpose: meaningless work and endless appetites define the days, resulting in a decimated (internal as well as external) landscape—the hollowed-out lives—and the attendant death cult convergence of religious fundamentalism and soulless consumerism that follow.
Empire imprints the Death Gene within us—and it is made manifest in the world we have created. It is as visible as the toxic vapors of pollutants veiling the horizon line. It shimmers like heat spires above the traffic-stalled interstates. It reeks like the endless archipelago of overflowing landfills that span the length of the land.
The Death Gene holds 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 dead: Through the now dried-up swamplands of his youth—through the limbo of suburbs that displaced it; the old man is led past rural crystal meth labs, and pharmaceutical plants, and Starbuck Coffee cafés 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...where the grim God gathers strength and energy, drawing energy from the nation’s emanations of hatred and fear like a reptile luxuriating on a sun-heated rock; and finally, they arrive at a small mortuary where they listen as a self-satisfied Baptist minister delivers the old man eulogy—a sermon devoted to the love and worship of God of Death (for the joys of this world are wicked—and preclude entry in the perfect one to come)—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—as the neo-plantation system of tenant farming held his youth and composed the contradictions of his gentle/angry, generous/spiteful, humble/racist mind.
Those confounding and contradictory traits of the southern psyche will not be dissolved by the dirt: Traits of habitual submission to authority and 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 his progeny.
Such traits worked to the benefit of the ruling elite of the Old South and now provide the same service for the lords of the corporate empire: then as now, our lives are given over to long hours of exploitive labor and offer little hope of removing our overseer’s boot from our throats. (From the cotton and tobacco fields of old feudalist order—to the present-day low pay, no benefits jobs of the so called “service sector economy”—those hope-decimated, labor practices are still with us.) Also, mirroring the values of Old Dixie, so many Americans share an unquestioning loyalty to military tradition—one that glorifies the squandering of one’s life in wars that serve to profit the narrow interests of a small, self-serving, aristocratic class. (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 lives on.)
And, as was the case with so many poverty-stricken whites in the Deep South, the inequities of present order have endowed many contemporary Americans with the sense of nebulous rage and resentment that is created by having one’s spirit repeatedly crushed by the inhuman demands of a seeming implacable system. Tragically, those anguished sentiments rise—displaced—as fear, resentment, and hatred of minorities, homosexuals, reformers, and outsiders. (From Klan meetings, Jim Crow laws, and the lynching of the bad-old-days then—right up to the right wing hate-speak of talk radio, the de facto segregation of gated, suburban subdivisions, and the queer bashing of these bad-new-days—these pernicious 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 Gene. 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. We grasp for air. We besiege the indifferent sky as to how we might loosen its Thanatotic 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 grip from our throats? Yes, and the old man would have about as much success petitioning 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 elites of corporate media will 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 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.
Then 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 it. Yes, such an event will come to pass—around about the time the swamp’s alligators 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, carry the Death Gene. As my fellow southerner, Walker Percy pointed out, the best way to survive the Death Genes is to face them and name them. And do not 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 must cease to lie to ourselves about our condition.
But 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. But 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 Gene loosens its grip and the wit of the world remains.