You find some pretty cool things in the trash in a city this size. I'm always on the lookout for discarded goodies, and have scored some fabulous free stuff – chairs, baskets, house-plants. But this was different: more than a trash treasure, it was a perfect metaphor for how things are right now, just sitting there, leaning up against a pile of garbage bags. I would have pounced on it, had I not been in a hurry to get somewhere else. By the time I made it back, it was gone, eaten by the garbage truck or picked up by someone else with an eye for the absurd. I didn't have my digital camera with me, so let me draw you a verbal portrait.
It was a huge full-colour map. Or, more accurately, part of a map: one large vertical slice, a quarter perhaps, of a map of the world. In a touch almost too good to be true, the legend in the top corner said "The World" but the map itself showed only -- in top-heavy Mercator projection -- a gigantic, looming North America and a retiring, minuscule South America. It reminded me of the beautiful line from a New Yorker review of one of those movies about comets crashing into the earth, that went something like "The world (played, in a particularly bold piece of casting, by the United States)…"
I wish I'd grabbed that map, now. I could have whisked it to Washington, smuggled it into the august chamber where the State of the Union address took place, and propped it up behind the Leader of the Free World -- played, in a bold piece of casting, by the minority-elected President of the United States. It would have made a beautiful backdrop. Talk about agit-prop.
By the way, wasn't it interesting that the United Nations covered up their tapestry version of Picasso's anti-war painting Guernica, in front of which Hans Blix delivered his report and Colin Powell made his speech, lest it provide too vivid a commentary on what the strategy known as Shock and Awe will do to Baghdad? Ah, the subversive power of art. When I hear someone say the word gun, I reach for some culture, but the UN reached for a dropcloth. As the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd notes here, the UN whitewash is reminiscent of when the deeply uptight Attorney General John Ashcroft allegedly ordered a cover-up of the allegorical statue of Justice because her naked bronze breasts offended his sensibilities (if you missed it at the time, a deliciously angry poem came out of that whole affair).
Anyway, I have to confess, I didn't watch the whole State of the Union address. Bush gives me the willies, especially that sly "who farted?" smirk he tends to use as punctuation. Flipping between the TV channels only offered a dozen different angles on the presidential face. Alarmingly, not one angle showed him as having any actual eyeballs, just bottomless Mephistophelian blanknesses (which makes it not difficult to feel that we may indeed be living in end times of one variety or another; see Russell's mapping of Bush's millennialist tendencies here). But it was the obligatory applause and the standing ovations that made me switch off – each and every one of Bush's proverbial "two cents worth" got a five dollar response, regardless of the actual exchange rate. The mandatory applause is standard for the State of the Union address, regardless of who's delivering it, but this time it really rankled.
I found myself indulging in a little TV-inspired fantasy, having just spent the previous hour watching one of the first episodes of the new series of American Idol. Just in case you're living on an iceberg and haven't seen or heard of it, it's a pop-star wannabe show, you know the sort of thing, where thousands of people audition for a place on a streamlined talent-show aimed at producing more fodder for bloated exploitative music companies and indiscriminate buyers and downloaders of so-called pop music. Oops, I did it again; I mean of course that the show is aimed at discovering the next brilliant musical talent, born in a humble stable but destined by fate and naked talent for the big time.
At least that's certainly how the prospectives viewed themselves, and this is one of those things I love about this country – the sheer chutzpah. Just about everyone who got their fifteen second soundbite of fame seemed to truly believe that they were the golden child, the musical genius we've been waiting for. They came in all shapes and sizes and colours and registers and accents (that's one of the other things I love about this country), and whether they sang like angels or like crows, the one thing they were not prepared to countenance was any judgement of their talent that fell short of how they graded themselves.
The judges are a triumvirate of good cop, bad cop, and big sister. There's Simon Cowell, an acid-tongued British impresario who doesn't just not pull his punches, he swings a mean verbal sandbag; Paula Abdul, the still-sprightly 80s singing' and dancin' gal who can't bear to be nasty; and Randy Jackson, an industry big-shot whose job is basically to say "'Sup, dawg?" and place the casting vote. And every time someone got voted off, the response from the wannabe popstar was the same: hands on hips, quick side-to-side head-snap, and incredulous expression: "Excuse me? Did you say I sucked? Hell, NO! YOU suck." And so on and so on. As one contestant in the last show said, "Who are YOU to judge ME?" Uh, honey? Pick up the clue phone. They're the judges!
It makes for great TV, of course, especially given the cunning tendency of the producers to let through both the very best and the very worst contestants, some of whom produced noises I last heard down at the natural birthing centre. And then there was the poor fellow who was informed by the British judge that his singing was "ghastly" – "Thank you!" he murmured fervently, before someone kindly explained to him what ghastly meant. It was at about that moment that I had my vision of George W. delivering his State of the Union address in front of the panel of American Idol judges, only to be stopped after two lines and informed "You are, quite possibly, the worst leader of the free world I've ever seen." But you just know he'd snap his fingers and say "Who are you to judge ME?" Uh, honey? We're the rest of the free and not so free world… you know, the other three quarters of that tell-tale map I glimpsed on the side of the road before it was scooped up with the garbage.