Looking at the state of our nation at the close of the year, stuck in two wars with a broken-down economy that deals cards from a stacked deck –- not to mention a crumbling ecology -- I recommend looking back at Picture This, a novel by Joseph Heller that came out in 1988.
By virtue of being a Heller novel, it received good attention at the time. But then it faded into the netherworld of barely remembered art. Picture This is a brilliant, meditative, enchanting work teeming with ideas that very much relate to the situation we’re in right now. The story bounces around even more than Heller’s Catch 22, stopping at times and places that include Socrates’s jail cell in Athens, Rembrandt’s studio in Amsterdam, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York . What ties it together are the stories and thoughts he weaves out of one painting, Rembrandt’s masterpiece Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer.
When we think of ancient Greece we tend to see it as the birthplace of democracy, but Heller, taking a hard look at its principal city state of Athens, can’t help noticing that its society was based on two pillars: war and slavery. The place was run by men who espoused generosity as they put the fix in to pile up more wealth for themselves and screw everyone else, including the thoroughly exploited youngsters they sent off to fight in grim, crazy wars. Heller juxtaposes this abysmal stream of hypocrisy, greed, and violence against the saving power of art, and while he does it he reminds us of the value of humor in our everyday lives.
When we elected Barack Obama as president I, like many of us, looked forward to a more decent society free of what the winning candidate called “dumb wars,” a government that would work toward justice at home and abroad. Where we are now is better than where we’d be under McCain. The odds are good that his blundering administration would have sunk us into Great Depression II instead of the near-Depression economy that’s choking us now. But you don’t need me to tell you we’re not in a good place. People are plunging into joblessness and homelessness. The promise of a decent education and civilized system of health care for our children fades.
Amazingly, we’re still stuck in Iraq while Obama ramps up the nothing-to-win war in Afghanistan, and he does it with a “volunteer” military, many of whose members are in uniform because no one else would offer them a job with benefits. Many of these kids are going batty from the repeated war deployments. There is no end game in Afghanistan. Obama’s generals have persuaded him we must remain as conquerors and call ourselves something else, and if the Afghans don’t like it, we’ll just have to kill more of them.
The statements coming out of this administration on the war there present new contradictions almost every day. We’re not nation building, we are nation-building, we’re there to get Al Qaeda, we’re there to get the Taliban, or we’re there to buy off the Taliban. Or we're in Afghanistan because we want to get the bad guys in Pakistan. We’re there to support Karzai or no, Karzai doesn’t matter. Well, Karzai does matter because he runs one of the most corrupt regimes on earth and has done so for eight years now with our backing. Yet we’re supposed to believe that the Afghans will believe this bandit chief will now rise above reproach along with his heroin-dealing family.
In Iraq, when Maliki postpones an election, we postpone withdrawal. He’s our marionette, and yet he pulls the strings, as does Karzai. Hours after Obama implied something vague about pulling out of Afghanistan down the road someday he was flatly contradicted by his own secretaries of defense and state and also Karzai. No, we never got to vote on it, but Afghanistan is our 52nd state. It and Iraq, which of course is No. 51, eat up more of our resources than any ten states together.
To deal with our economy and the crooked bankers who wrecked it with their greed, Obama hired a bunch of crooked bankers. And guess what? They’re tilting everything in favor of crooked bankers. It’s been more than a year since the collapse and we have no reforms. The crooks are still dealing derivatives with our money, and another meltdown looms. Then there’s health care.
The health care bills in the Senate and House are tilted toward insurance and drug companies and the designs of the conservative American Medical Association. They’re all going to get even richer. Members of Congress who shout the loudest about fiscal responsibility are the very same members who have stripped all pricing controls out of the hamburger meat they’ve made of the legislation. Meanwhile the big "news" media spend their resources chasing after Tiger Woods's mistresses.
That’s why I like to pick up books like Picture This, which remind me none of this is new. That’s depressing and comforting at the same time. I respect people who keep fighting the good fight, who try to save us from the worst of the worst, and I hope for a good outcome. Meanwhile, it doesn’t hurt to follow Heller’s lead and enjoy the art that’s all around us.
Causes Ivan Goldman Supports
American Heart Association
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Beit T'Shuvah Recovery Program