Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Triumph and Tragedy of the Armstrongs

One slipped the surly bonds of space to reach another world and plant the American flag on its dusty moonscape. Another won seven Tour de France races, an Olympic medal, and bragging rights more than slightly diminished by rampant steroid use. Both were named Armstrong, a mythical-sounding appellation derived from being “strong-armed.” Perhaps not quite mythical, then, but certainly utilitarian: both Lance and Neil, occupying bygone first names alluding to a different time, were emblems of the tragedy and triumph of the human spirit.

“The riskiest thing you can do is get greedy,” one of the these Armstrongs once said. The other was said to be a man of few words, most famously known for his 11 words upon stepping off the lunar module: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” (The extra “a” was put in there by myself, since Neil was alleged to have flubbed the line NASA gave him, but then again, neither you nor I have ever landed on the Moon.) Lance Armstrong spawned a culture of the “Live Strong” attitude, a defiance against adversity — and ultimately the anticlimax to the moonshot, with his decision to plead no contest to doping charges with the USADA and their reaction, the destruction of his legacy.

People may still “believe” in the tragic Lance as much as they believe in our space program: both appear weak and vulnerable, yet the promise within each to make a nation dream again may yet still appear. Armstrong is a risk-taker, a frontiersman who wants to win and go big. Nothing was badder than landing on the Moon; we were in a death race with the Soviets to do it, and that charismatic womanizer from New England said we were going there by the time “this decade is out.” Out-racing other bicyclists like spermatoza on the fallopian tubes of French streets seven times in a row with the aid of performance-enhancing drugs will always pale in comparison. But it was still cool, too. Except the part where he cheated.

Ironically, more than three decades of lunatic conspiracists have tried to deny Neil’s achievement as well, though on far less evidentiary basis. Buzz, the enforcer, was known to deck anyone in the face who would dare try saying America didn’t do it. Lance did it, too, but the chemicals helped — in a similar fashion, Neil could not have told Houston that the Eagle had landed were it not for the Saturn V rocket that raced through the void like the powerful steroids racing through Lance as he propelled to yet another Victory.

When the dust settles, the footprints remain. We came in peace. We raced to win. The name Armstrong shall live in eternity as the great, flawed enterprise known as Spectacle: hundreds of millions the world over were inspired, only to lose interest (the moon landing project ended in 1972) or to grow disgusted and be let down (the doping scandal broke years ago, only to face its denouement in the last few days). In either case, millions were transfixed, for good or not, for permanence or transience, to the stars or to stardom.


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‘The American Dream … Is a Lie’: Reviewing a Review of the Corporate State

It’s best to begin reviewing before the book is finished. Otherwise, you feel that the final moments are the most memorable and the whole exercise becomes entirely retrospective.

I started the write-up while metaphorically trudging in the swamps of south Florida with Hedges’ and Sacco’s descriptions and images. They found a ray of light to close out the book, and it is the only piece that dates a project otherwise timeless in its portrayals of the Sacrifice Zones.

Their style at points veers toward the didactic, but on balance this is an excellent work… those were among my impressions. Also, this reviewer made several attempts to interview Hedges, ringing him up at his Princeton residence, one time reaching a Eunice, who was presumed to be an assistant until my surveying of this survey directed the eyes to the dedication: “to Amalie and Eunice.”

Anyway, here is a snippet:

Days is a travelogue of the oppressed and dispossessed, whose misery makes our dream possible. Mountains must be blown up for our office parks; the natives and the underclass, reminders of our original sins of enslavement and extirpation, must be removed from sight by the freeways. Yet amind all the devastation and brokenness, dignity remains.

The authors never fail to not excise their opinions based on what they see: Sacco does it with imagery, Hedges with words. The effect, nonetheless, gave me no compunction whatsoever against having and inserting opinions of my own. Typically, a book review lays out the premise, a narrative, some juicy quotes, and more or less captures the tone of the tome.

For my purposes, if Hedges is going to be a bit heavy-handed, why not me? Now, that is not a license to jump off the deep end. But how else does one review a book containing declarations like “White supremacy, wielded by those of privilege, has remained one of the uninterrupted constaints in American life”?

The question of revolution… as in real social change, it appears throughout the work and my review. Personally, the prospects of Greece-like uprisings seem remote so long as a majority of people are comfortable enough or too intimidated to even believe they have power. At one point, Hedges asks a man in southern West Virginia, a five-foot-tall straw-hatted fellow who has fought his entire life to hold onto his ancestral land with the same tenacity of the Lakota we meet in the first chapter, “Days of Theft.”

(Each location is prefaced by what kind of days befall it: days of theft for the Lakota, days of siege for Camden, days of destruction for Welch, West Virginia, and days of slavery for the workers of Immokalee, Florida.)

The mountain man is named Larry Gibson. He is quoted as saying: “When it comes right down to it, I been callin’ fer a revolution across this country fer a long time now. I think it was Thomas Jefferson who said, I think it was ’im, who said we should have a revolution every twenty years to keep the country in check. We ’bin way overdue.” Asked what it would look like, Gibson says something about holding those in power in contempt.

Lucas Benitez is an organizer in Immokalee. He says: “Many people are desperate. They work hard and having nothing to show for it. You see in these Occupy movements young people who burned their eyelashes off studying and have no job and huge debts. There are differences,” Benitez adds. “We are poor. We are isolated.” Occupy, in fact, becomes the lodestar of the Great Hope for this book, which in hindsight appears tragic.

Two forces competed for my attention while reviewing: the stories told through Sacco’s cels and Hedges’ prophecizing, and the critiques of our political, economic, social, and environmental systems, which all appear to be in a state of advanced decay — if not total freefall collapse as Hedges sometimes avers. (Not that he hasn’t done his homework: there are 127 books cited, by my count.)

I examined the sources in the bibliography to get a sense of the intellectual spine upholding the dreary meat this book carries around, snapshots of a bruised country. It’s going to have to get a lot worse for a lot more of us until the revolt comes.

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