The Great Cretinizer (01/11/90)

In January 1990, various critics in the LA Weekly wrote about “the person, event, or thing that blew them away—for good or bad—in the last 10 years.” Here’s what G.M. submitted.


The decade was owned here by a man who simultaneously incarnated Mickey Mouse and Pinochet: a “vile tyrant” (so wrote Walter Karp, the great political critic who died earlier this year), the Great Cretinizer. All that is left of the mirage is the wreckage of the legacy: a political landscape where What were once republican institutions have been replaced by rackets, and speech by silence. The present-day ruler may believe in nothing, but for him and for the country that void now functions as a principle of freedom: a craven bulk, he has learned to slip all accountability, and so have former citizens, now consumers at best, private criminals otherwise. This is nihilism, and as nihilists dance around the abyss of values they trace a circle, complete it: when you can’t get what you want you kill everything around yourself. When in the early 1960s a man named Hollis Brown shot his family and himself, the event was so remarkable, so anomalous and strange, that Bob Dylan felt moved to write a song about it, but today such occurrences are everyday news, worthy only of a shrug. (San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 9: “A gunman described in a psychological examination as unlikely to harm his ex-wife burst into her house in Spanaway, Wash., early yesterday and killed her, their two daughters and her new husband before killing himself… In Belleville, Ill., a man identified as 48-year-old Kurt Steibel shot and killed his wife, daughter and 1-year-old grandson, then shot at firefighters before committing suicide.”) Will those who certified as sane and harmless the first killer publicly apologize and quit their jobs? Not in this country. The USA has less need of Japanese industrial techniques than of sanpaku. The legacy is a realm of private violence, have-it-all what’s-in-it-for-me selfishness taken to its limit. The country is dead, and only a revival of public violence—a refusal of circumstances that, as in the first days of the civil rights movement, physically interposes itself between corrupt institutions and their everyday functions—can bring it back to life.

That couldn’t happen here go the reassuring passwords,” Howard Hampton wrote on the U.S. press coverage of the events in Tiananmen Square: “the massacre or the uprising?” Our tyranny is bland, hard to find, hard to fight, fragmented, a morass of seemingly trivial, private humiliations and insults, nobody else’s business, no public speech for them. In the United Kingdom, the ruler privatizes industry and water; here the very ideas on which the country was founded—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—are privatized. We look in wonder, or we turn away as if from a conversation in a foreign language, at the story now being told on the other side of the world: in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania, the Soviet Union. But it’s not our story. As cultures these places may be much older than ours, but as countries, and as political entities, they are far younger, jerrybuilt out of a tyranny that was never bland, that never possessed a shred of the of-the-people legitimacy our kind of tyranny still feeds on. So these places are re-inventing themselves out of immediate desire and distant memory, the “mystic chords of memory” Lincoln spoke of; they are making history. We aren’t; we’re eating what history we’ve already made, the history that is no longer ours to make. “The Declaration of Independence makes a difference,” Herman Melville wrote; he was talking about the freedom of the mind, the freedom to invent, to create, to say what one meant without blinkers or even conscience. But today that difference has passed to other places.

There is no question that our example, as a people and as a polity, inspired those who in our time make history, from Tiananmen demonstrators justifying themselves with images of Woodstock to the constitutional details of the agreements being hammered out between Communists and New Forums as I write. But our example, put into practice, come to life and on the move, is now a foreign language. It’s a conversation that we, as a polity, as a society, as a country, can’t understand, and, finally, none of our business. The last decade promoted a nihilism we live out as if it were real life, which is to say that we are now a backwater, happy as a pig in shit and precisely as capable of saying what we mean.


L.A. Weekly, January 11, 1990


2 thoughts on “The Great Cretinizer (01/11/90)

  1. Probably my favorite thing he’s ever written. Read it back when I was just out of high school and bought Ranters & Crowd Pleasers in 1997, and it’s always stayed with me. Crazy to think of how worse it’s gotten since then.

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