“The American in Paris” has lost its lustre in a matter of a few long and nasty weeks. I think of Fred Astaire tapping along the cobblestone streets of Montmartre in that frivolous 1951 Academy Award winning classic, An American in Paris, and feel with disturbing, ironic intensity the tidal wave of effects that the War in the Gulf has brought upon us.
The United States Embassy has recently sent out a letter to Americans in Paris in which speaking English loudly in public is officially discouraged. Discretion has been called for, too, in reading American or English newspapers in the open. Schools, institutions, and organizations have cancelled programs. Security forces have been hired. Even in the peaceful and detached galleries of the ancient collection of the Louvre frisking is the order of the day. On the 16th of January I strolled past the glass cases of artifacts from Messapotamia, brilliant artistry from Sumaria, and wares from the shores of the Tigres: Baghdad. The cradle of civilization risks now being the casket. Sadness grew over the shadows of the room as the circular shape of history revealed itself.
The pall that hangs over Paris today–and I assume most of the world–at first is the depression that comes from living in fear of the irrational. Innocent people everywhere–everywhere–are being terrorized in their dailiness in a variety of bleak ways. In Paris, we don’t yet need to strap gas masks on our children nor are we cringing at the sounds and sights of bombers or missiles, but the war is pounding away nonetheless at our humanity.
On the most base level, the changes are felt in the emptiness of the hotels (the Crillon is more than 80% vacant) and restaurants, the cancelled international flights (TWA laid off 1500 workers and reduced flights between Paris and the US), the scores of bomb scares that have daunted Metro stations, stores, and discos. One American university cancelled out of its Paris program this semester. Nearly fifty new students from the US didn’t show up at AUP for the Spring semester. The American Womens Group monthly coffee clutch has been moved to an undisclosed location. One woman suggested that a rope ladder be installed from its Pershing Hall office. On the whole, people are going out less, avoiding large public places like the Champs-Elysees and Les Halles. American news networks have removed signs from their doors and are limiting their public visibility. A pervasive suspicion hangs in the air as we select itineraries, chose cafés to sit in, make appointments. The tragedy here is both in the incalculable degree of real danger and the unhealthy neuroses that the imagination is obliged to incorporate into everyday living.
Another factor that has intensified the cloud of ill-ease in Paris is related to our inability to process emotionally the inundation of information and misinformation to which we as consumers of the news are subjected. It’s clear that part of this war, and a part that hadn’t been anticipated by the public prior to January 16, is the technological means of connecting the public with international events. CNN’s stronghold on the world’s access to information is at once dazzling and horrific. There is no news anywhere that is beyond the feasible boundaries of live coverage.
The line, however, in this case, between reportage and analysis has been shaded by an overriding zest for the selling of news as a dynamic product. And the product is dynamic, so dynamic, widely subscribed to, and relatively uncontested and uncontestable, that a strange strain of monolithicism with great graphics seems to be hindering each individual’s ability to articulate his own psychic position in a world going to pot. How can responsible citizens anywhere apply individual reflection and analysis to formulate intelligent judgments of their own? Isn’t freedom the ability to participate in a society? The degree of preparation in CNN’s presentation approaches high satire or black humor:
The War in the Gulf, with logo, music, and opening lead radiates out like a sublime mini-series produced with the sensitivity of a magnified Wide World of Sports in which the “agony of defeat” has been nuked. We watch truly the most dangerous events of perhaps the entire history of humankind in the comfort of our homes with the same critical engagement of viewers of a movie Made for TV. Close to 90% of all news we’re receiving from the Gulf is CNN generated. And both George Bush and Saddam Hussein rely on the collecting, mixing, and satellite-diffusion of CNN’s Atlanta-based product. A journalist friend of mine in Washington remarked recently that the war was being served up in a Nintendo-like way.
One of the most frightening aspects of this moment in history is a general resignation that the events are so complex, twisted, and dangerous that both the actions and words of the individual are useless and hopeless. At the same time, the other normal activities of daily life (when held up against a backdrop of death, deception, and destruction and reenforced with round the clock coverage) seem pale and silly. It’s hard to take your work seriously. A form of low-grade, constant infection of morale is what we’re left with. The normally crisp line between truth and lies, facts and opinion, reality and fantasy–the line humans must employ (with a healthy margin of nuances) to demark morality and sanity–has gone all foggy, and the consequences is a period of moral aimlessness pitted against the impenetrability of single-mindedness.
Peace protests of growing size and volume are being organized everywhere–Paris, Washington, Berlin… In the US nearly 80% of the public supports the war and despite George Bush’s assurances against another Vietnam both American and European society is showing signs of tearing at the seams. Many feel anesthisized by the choices. What does it really mean to either support or oppose this War in the Gulf? Confusion abounds.
The tragic irony of this particular situation is that both sides can carry with it arguments–principled and less principled– that conflict. Both sides carry emotional baggage. Echos from history–especially here in Europe where the memory of war is not so distant–should haunt us. But so should the mentality that bolsters and rallies behind a military industrial complex. Sophistocated, principled or nuanced positions on all sides are clubbed into the same closed system of good vs evil that is perhaps the psychic root of this entire conflict. Thoughtful people everywhere must feel the overwhelming frustration of knowing neither how to defend nor oppose governments, armies, special interests, or political ideals while protecting themselves. What’s at stake is humanity itself, the safety of the world, the preservation of the planet….