28 December 2011

“Nothing” really matters

[The tenth in a series of articles collected under the title 'Love Notes to Democracy', written while in the USA as a member of a team of international monitors overseeing the US Presidential Election 2004]

“Queen” refers not just to Elizabeth.  “Queen” for me is the band that gave us Bohemian Rhapsody, and I remembered “her” because of a particular line in that song, “nothing really matters, nothing really does” thrown in among a confession of sorts dedicated, we are made to understand, by the murderer to his mother.  I am just referring to the overt, literary meaning of the lyrics and if there is any hidden meaning, it escapes me.  I plead innocence on account of cultural difference. 

What reminded me of this particular line was a Seinfeld episode where Jerry and George attempt to sell a sitcom to a major television network about “nothing”.  The proposed sitcom would mirror their “real” television lives, which play out, day in and day out, the various elements that make up “nothing”.  This nothing-of-substance seems to be an accurate mirror of urban life in the USA.  Seinfeld, after all, enjoyed one of the most successful runs in television history.  “Nothing” had mattered, after all. Nothing matters, really! 

From the founding fathers to someone who believes he is a kind of founding god father, from Lincoln to Bush, the United States has proved that mediocrity can only be subdued, and then not forever, for it somehow finds its way to the top.  The less you have of substance, the more you have to show!  This is why there is a thing called “show business”.  Yes, marketing nothing and making a sale is what is called business or more accurately business-as-usual.  Let me elaborate.

You go to war on account of non-existent “weapons of mass destruction” and your friends make a killing (!) after securing contracts to re-construct the country you’ve just destroyed.  You fight in the name of god (whose existence is disputed) and you end up controlling some of the richest oil fields in the world.  You fight in the name of that silly word “democracy”, which has been robbed of any useful and/or applicable meaning, in order to establish and/or protect the worst tyrannies. 

The New Yorker, in its “The Talk of the Town” section of September 27, 2004 has a hilarious story, which I offer below in condensed form.

“Earlier this year, the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, hired a team of independent experts to go to Iraq and evaluate the agency’s programs there.   The experts returned with a pretty pessimistic prognosis.  Prior to publication, USAID kept sending back parts of the report for revision, draft after draft, essentially weeding out all criticism and ensuring a decently whitewashed document.” 

Yes, the world was given quite an optimistic picture that would surely have made those on the ground in that many times tortured land puke many times over.  Anyway, how is that for transforming nothing into everything?  Should we laugh?  Perhaps.  Except that this is not news.  This is the modus operandi of despotic regimes intent on preserving ideological control over populations.  What is funny is that the USA does not need to pretend to be the champion of democracy and justice anymore.  For one thing, everyone knows it is not.  Secondly, the USA has the guns and the will to know what to do to anyone who wants to say it as it is.  It is not that nothing really matters, but nothing can really be made to matter!

Let us take the case of democracy or lack thereof in the USA.  In your democracy, good people of the USA, for example, there are no people there are only numbers.  They vote, but they don’t get counted.  You have a free media whose collective brain is too crippled to think and express freely.  You have relatively easy access to the information superhighway, but you are conditioned to deny access to the bad news.  You have the watchdogs of democracy acting like puppy dogs, content in playing the old records that re-produce your master’s voice. 

One could argue, philosophically, that nothing actually means everything.  I’ve known people, for example, who have renounced everything and by this very fact are richer than most.  The converse is also true.  The United States generously offers foreign aid to countries that have been structurally impoverished as though it wants nothing in return, but in fact extracts ten times what it gives.  Nothing is as ridiculously simple as obtaining something close to everything after investing nothing, if you have the capacity to enforce certain types of contracts on corrupt or otherwise flawed governments. 

I believe that between nothing and everything, there must lie something.  So let me try to enumerate the “some things” that I have seen and which give me hope that this uneven and indeed immoral commerce of nothing for everything, this show-business of fraud, can be transformed into something more socially palatable than delusion. 

The United States of America, I firmly believe, is the home of the same proportion of idiots, bigots, crooks, swindlers, murderers and other vermin, as one would find in any other country.  The United States of American, by the same token, I firmly believe, is the home of decent, honorable, good-hearted, giving, human beings capable of community and embrace.  I have seen such men, women and children, felt their warmth, been caressed and comforted by the life-giving waters that flow abundantly from their cultured sensibilities.  I have seen them fight the honorable fight, seen them devastated by defeat, and have seen them reconfigure their lives and their resolve.   

This largely unacknowledged community of people is alive and full of liberating energy and love.  You will find them keeping life alive in the teeming metropolis as well as in the heartland of “red” America.  They may wear the Republican or the Democratic badge or may not wear one at all, but they all carry in their persona and their lives, the unmistakable insignia that seeks to build a better, more inclusive system of governance.  They may pray in different churches or not pray at all, but they will not prey on innocence and ignorance.  They have “something”, these people do.  And it matters and hopefully will matter much more the nothing-everything dichotomized world of usurpers of popular will and re-definers of un-won or misbegotten “mandates”.

They might laugh at or laugh with Jerry Seinfeld, but will not be moved to emulate the brain-effacing sitcoms that bombard their living rooms with nothing on a daily basis. They are capable of making “nothing” matter less than it does now and of reducing “everything” to its real, believable proportions.    

How and when does this something come to matter?  Who can tell?  All I know is that it is reasonable enough to believe that when certain things come together, by design or by natural law, the vast emptiness that is nothing has to concede ground.  Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the great Urdu poet comforted himself in his multiple incarcerations in these lines in which I constantly find inspiration and which therefore I frequently share with fellow-travelers:

“Your feet bleed, Faiz,
but something must surely bloom
as you water the desert
simply by walking through it”.

I do not have to urge this other, more hopeful and infinitely more beautiful “America of the Something” to walk.  It already does and I am glad.