I know that I'm not being very original when I say that the current administration in Washington D.C. disgusts me. I know there are plenty of people the world over who hold the same opinion as I do (if not a harsher one). The thing is that like so many others, I find the way they have reacted to the horror of September 2001 by unleashing further horror on the world repellent; I believe that is only a symptom of the deeper damage they have inflicted on the American character.
From the late nineteenth and through a good chunk of the twentieth century, America could realistically be called the champion of the individual. While on occasion that might have brought the country into conflict with the need for some universal and collective measures, for the most part it was an atmosphere that encouraged and fostered greatness.
I don't mean greatness of the country as a whole, although if a country is to be measured by the people it produces, then it can lay claim to some of that greatness, but the people who, through sheer force of their brilliance, thrust themselves into prominence on the world stage. Where else but in America could people like the Beats have sprung forth, or earlier poets like e.e. cummings; the expatriate communities in Paris and Tangier that included Paul Bowls, Ernest Hemingway, William S, Burroughs, and F. Scott Fitzgerald?
That's only a small sampling of people from one field of endeavour, and barely even scratches the surface of the men and women whom I believe could only have been nurtured in a society that encouraged individualism in its inhabitants from an early age. It was the feature of American society that distinguished it most from the other Western democracies.
But with individualism comes great responsibility, something that has been conveniently forgotten in recent times. Being selfish is not the same thing as being an individual, and neither is doing what you want without considering the implications of your actions and how they will affect others. But even that has become almost an irrelevant concern in the America of George Bush and Dick Cheney. Almost every act that this administration has taken, every bill they have passed, and every power they have invoked, has had the result of quashing the individual in the name of what's good for the State.
It really makes me wonder what would have become of one of America's truest individuals of the late twentieth century, Edward Abbey, if he lived today. (Although the suicide of Hunter S. Thompson tells you more then you need to know of how well individuals fare in this time.) Ed Abbey was best known as the writer of the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, which advocated direct action in fighting the exploitation of the west by the very people who have voted George Bush into power. Long before it was fashionable to be seen fighting for the preservation of the wild against development and so-called progress he was trying to teach people how to become the monkey wrench in the plans to further the rape of the southwest.
In a new book edited by David Peterson, various letters and missives from Edward Abbey have been gathered together in an attempt to give people of a new generation an understanding of just who this complicated, and seemingly contradictory, man was. Postcards From Ed: Dispatches And Salvos From An American Iconoclast, published by Milkweed Editions and distributed by the Publishers Group Canada, contains letters he wrote to various people in his personal and professional life, and a multitude of broadsides directed at publications throughout the United States. (Funny, I just happened to flip open the book to a page containing a letter written in 1974 to Rolling Stone magazine complimenting them for running an interview with Glenn Gould, and pleading with them to publish more of the work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.)
Abbey was a walking contradiction according to most people's lights and probably had as many enemies on the left as he did on the right because of his strongly held opinions. While on one hand having no problem in saying Nixon and Kissinger's bombing of North Viet Nam after the 1972 elections sank the government to the moral level of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia, he was also a charter member of the National Rifleman's Association. He advocated each household in America be supplied with a weapon by the government so they could then form a civilian militia to replace the volunteer/draft army.
I'm sure he knew very well that was exactly the situation during the revolutionary war, when the British tried to break the militia by making it illegal for civilians to bear arms. (Hence a certain clause in the constitution of the United States guaranteeing the right to bear arms.) He didn't think it would do anything for the crime rate, but with 150 million people "we've got plenty to spare". Anyway, he was more worried about the army and the police invading his home then any criminal.
What he wrote about in his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang he tried to live as much as possible, finding whatever means he had at his disposal of being the monkey wrench thrown into the works to disrupt projects that he saw as damaging pristine wilderness. He was very much the "preserve it as is" type of person. He argued against projects that would allow more people to have access to various natural wonders.
His theory was if they hadn't wanted to make an effort to see a place than they didn't want to go there badly enough to begin with. What was the point of going to somewhere like "Rainbow Bridge" if you didn't experience the six-mile walk to appreciate its wonder as part of its natural environment? Nature shouldn't be a stop on someone's tourist agenda, where you spend ten minutes posing for photos and then moving on to the next stop. It turns the natural world into a commodity like everything else in the world and depreciates its intrinsic value.
While that attitude would have set many a corporate man's teeth on edge, the fact that Ed had nothing against hunting and agreed that hunters had a role to play in conservation, and in fact might even be better situated then most to do so, would have the vegans at PETA getting their knickers in a twist. What they wouldn't understand is that people who hunt for their food, and take responsibility for what they eat, aren't going to want to see stocks depleted.
A good hunter also knows the importance of the natural food chain and the role that large predators other than men play in it. They wouldn't allow for the wholesale slaughter of wolves, coyotes, or big cats to ensure a plentiful supply of deer. But a lot of these so-called environmentalist groups are just as ignorant of the way nature works as the people in their opposing camp are.
For those people who don't know who Ed Abbey is, or who confuse him with an American playwright of a similar name (Edward Albee), Postcards From Ed: Dispatches And Salvos From An American Iconoclast will offer an intriguing glimpse into the mind of one of America's last individuals. His death in 1989 was the next to last death rattle of the spirit of individualism that supposedly makes the United States great. Perhaps people will be encouraged to search out some of his books after reading these cards and letters from the edge of so-called civilization that have been compiled in this book.
While some of the battles Ed waged are being won (the Hopi of Black Mesa have finally been able to stop The Peabody Coal Company from draining the water table for use in their slurry line and closed The Black Mesa Mine down), more often than not these days we are losing our wild lands.
According to Ed Abbey, the monkey wrench is not a symbol of destruction, but a symbol of the potential in all of us to restore the world with our abilities. We have a choice: we can either set about restoring in an effort to try and save what we can, or we can sit back idly while it all comes tumbling down around us.
I think I know what Ed would have done; do you know what you're going to do?