Fallujah. Signing statements. Abu Ghraib.
Waterboarding. Stress positions. Free speech zones.
The theological and historical differences between Sunni and Shi'ite. How levees are constructed. Why levees fail.
These are things I knew nothing about until George W. Bush.
I've always considered gaining knowledge an indisputable good, but these pieces of the world I've come to know in the past six years have the feel of being forced into me under threat. They now carry with them a weight and a darkness.
The Ninth Ward. Haditha. Guantanamo Bay.
How much sweeter to have picked up these nuggets of geography and history as I always have, serendipitously led through a leisurely stepping stone process of one book or conversation suggesting another, and yet another, and now a couple of twists and turns ... you start out here, reading Faulkner and next you're drawn to learning about cotton production and before you know it, you're at civil rights.
Instead, in all cases above, I'd begun my acquaintance because of headlines and horrors and a screaming, driving voice in my head: There's something wrong! There's something very, very wrong! Learn about it! Fast!
The jumble of panicked facts I feel I've had to jam into my brain to qualify as a reasonably informed citizen makes my skull feel swollen, as though I've had to take a crash correspondence course - sometimes several at once - at the same time I'm in a sprint for my mental life.
There's a loss in that, a taint on the previously enjoyable process of innocent inquiry. I've found fascinating, for instance, the original historical split between the Sunni and Shi'ite sects of Islam. Yet if subjects are filed in the brain under a color-coded system, this tale is filed under black and blue (and red for blood). The accompanying score is Adagio for Strings.
The tone is completely different for, say, my recent thirst for jazz, which arose through my son's budding interest and the two of us watching Ken Burns' marvelous series over a course of several days, eating life-threatening amounts of junk food while sprawled on couches in the living room.
Some nights I go to sleep under this administration and wonder: What new horror am I going to have cram into my head tomorrow morning? What new form of torture? What unfamiliar town or province?
My brain's been hijacked and my eagerness to read news killed. I know too much now compared with how much I knew in the innocent 1990's. And there seems no way to un-know it or bleach it clean of the flavor of its original acquisition. (I still see the infamous picture of the hooded prisoner standing on the box, arms outspread at Abu Ghraib, on a background of baby blue because I first encountered the photo and the terse, stunned narrative of horror over at Billmon's Whiskey Bar.)
Certainly of all the atrocities and diminishments since Bush took office, having personal fact-flavor problems seems unworthy of even a footnote. Arguably, I should have removed my head from my sorry American provincial ass a long time ago to learn more about Islam or the precise wording of the Geneva Conventions. Still, the knowledge of foreign cities, dodges of the law, how Abramoff's money came to be laundered ... all of these facts feel IV'ed into me on a timetable set by an administration I despise. That seems a final, intrusive indignity, small as it is.
When I was 20, I was in a serious car accident. I fractured my back, collar bones, four ribs. I'd ruptured my kidney, I'd had a chunk of flesh the size of a Girl Scout cookie ripped out of my knee. I was hospitalized more than a month, and I'd been proud of being reasonably stoic and properly grateful to have survived.
The day I was released from the hospital, I went home and took a shower, the first in nearly six weeks. As I lathered up - a luxury I can still savor in memory after weeks and weeks of bed-bound sponge baths - my fingers found, underneath my arm and along my shoulder blade, embedded pieces of gravel and glass that had not been properly debrided. I realized they were going to be a part of me forever because my flesh had already healed over them. And finally, I lost it, completely. I stood in the shower and wept for twenty minutes; it was some sort of symbolic final straw for me, this discovery of physical objects in me from the accident, minor though they were in the overall injury scheme. I think what grieved me the most was that they were on the hidden underside, the most tender part of my underarm and back, and that although they were harmless, I'd spend a lifetime remembering, every time I bathed, the precise stretch of road they came from and how they got there.
I feel like George W. Bush and his policies are gravel and glass in my brain. Forever.
There's no debridement of the image of the little girl in a dress, crying in horror and crouching over a pool of her parents' blood after they were killed at a checkpoint. There's no erasure of Gonzales' calling the Geneva Conventions "quaint." There's no rewinding of the tape in my head that juxtaposes the president playing guitar at a birthday party while people floated face down in the streets of New Orleans.I find myself longing for ignorance, and that's a weakness and betrayal of everything I'd believed until George W. Bush came onto the scene. Again, this is a minor personal complaint and I'm sure I'll recover, eventually. My real concern is that this is less than you can say with certainty about the effects of this administration on this country and the rest of the world.