Muzzled by History
Since the days of Alexandria, that legendary city of
cosmopolitan education and intellectual commerce, the
great pendulum of world history has swung into and out
of a Dark Age, climbed to its zenith in the Renaissance
and is now barnstorming the backswing domain of our Age
of Technology. If there is a poster child for opportunism,
for carpe diem puppetry, it is the pendulum of
history. It's got a full head of steam these days, as
we can see by the rapdily changing artifacts of our present
electronic heritage. So it moves now with an inexorable
force and dutifully plunges history toward yet another
Dark Age. As it must. What else can an echo do?
Bush seems to be the new Christian face of fear, the
same fear that had Theophilus I heap the cultural scrolls
of Alexandria on the cella of the library and touch them
off with a torch. Faith, intolerance, zealotry, patriotism,
superstition, the sanctity of blood and gods, jingoism
and economic expansion are features of this fear, which
is the mainspring behind the movement of the historical
pendulum. And the latest flavor of fear, ancillary to
a culture's position along the mirrored arcs of history,
can be determined by conversations in the street.
Patriotism, along with the flowering of its rectangular
fabrics above rooflines and town squares, is one of fear's
favorite filibusters. It keeps the historical pastiche
bubbling until the pendulum can reach its appointed position.
Other barometer whistleblowers are libraries that rattle
with empty spaces, bookstores struggling to pay rents,
daytime operas called Oprah Winfrey or Jerry Springer,
and cafe conversations that assiduously avoid philosophical
or artistic topics. But nothing says 'Dark Age' quite
so concisely as an obsession with firearms. And in this
disposition the United States leads the world. To hell
with Shakespeare and Keats, the single syllable eloquence
of a gun muzzle is enough for them. And of course when
everyone is packin', a wholesale lunacy of apprehension
sweeps the country.
It's easy to see one's own death in this weatherchange
of paranoia and neuroses. The prevailing images and celebration
of American hoodlumology in theatres, television, books,
rap and narco corrido lyrics, are easy prognosticators.
And as these dehumanizing iocns are exported to the furthest
outposts of the planet, worry and angst take root in other
cultures, if only as a demonstrated horror for American
violence and brutishness.
seen my own death. And it is intimate with the great North
American aptitude for dislocation. Our culture, largely
thanks to technology, can make a living from almost anywhere
in the world. So despite our flags and heritage, we embrace
an ambulant lifestyle. We are the new Huns, Mongols and
Tartars. We conquer with laptops and cell phones. We carry
a gene that continually changes its shape along the course
of history's pendulum. The gene of the nomad. And it seems
in these times there is no Passover in its heart. It infects
the first born. The second and third too. We are as migratory
I myself am about to make a move to a new neighborhood.
I recently met my future neighbor, a big man with a furrow
over his eyes and an accent that suggested a banjo somewhere
in his family's DNA. He is an American. He is intolerant.
And he loves guns.
One afternoon we talked among a summer crop of Mexican
flies while his dog wetted my car tires.
"I'm getting the paperwork done for my guns,"
he informed me. "They'll all be legal."
"That's nice," I replied. What else can one
say to something like that? He gauged me with a glance
then leaned toward my shoulder, where he delivered the
following casual survey.
"Do you like shooting dogs and cats?"
"Do you like shooting dogs and cats?"
I looked at him, decided he wasn't joking and said, "Well,
The man sat back in his chair. "Oh," he muttered,
obviously disappointed he had not skillfully recognized
a fellow naturalized citizen of flintlocklandia.
Some months later I was playfully relating this encounteer
to another American, one I had similarly misread.
"Wait a minute," he interrupted. "He's
getting permits for his guns?"
"But I thought you could only own a shotgun in Mexico."
"Apparently you can register other calibers,"
I reported. "The guy showed me a list of weapons
he was legalizing."
The American's eyes glazed in private revery. "I'll
have to look into that." he said quietly, more to
himself than anyone else in the room. Then he turned to
a fellow American at the gathering and the two of them
had a long conversation about shooting doves and quail.
I was suddenly orphaned by my distinctly unAmerican disinterest
in hand-held weapons of mass destruction.
Yes, I have seen my own death. The mental image of my
new neighbor skulking around the peripheries of his property
with his legal firearm cradled in his hands. It's a dirge-like
vision I can't seem to escape, a fate as inimitable as
the arc of history's pendulum. Mexican gun laws might
as well be a Do Not Walk on the Grass sign hung
next to an exit door of a football stadium just moments
before someone pulls the fire alarm.
Here's the way it's going to end, and it will have everything
to do with a chronic back problem that can suddenly and
unceremoniously drop me to my knees like a sidewalk placcard
in a high wind.
go outside one evening to look at the stars. My neighbor,
in a fit of American bloodlust, will be hidden in the
shadows, wearing a deerstalker and a Fennimore Cooper
squint. There'll be visions of stray dogs and cats running
past his mental crosshairs. And maybe a dove or two. As
I tilt my neck back to get a better view of the Milky
Way my back will short cirtuit and I'll drop to my hands
and knees. My neighbor will hear the noise and angle toward
"Frank, it's me! My back's out!"
But it'll be too late. And I'll become just another Alexandrian
scroll touched off by Christian zealotry when my neighbor
grins and opens fire.