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Richard Nixon Among The Ruins

So your foreign correspondent is lolling around in the lovely village of Gorizia in northeast Italy, a country that still enjoys the benefits of a strong, at times even militant union movement and various socialist programs (all under constant attack by privatizers and globalizers and other minions of capitalism). Fine food, historic sites, magnificent architecture, good conversation with good friends, relaxation, intelligent newspapers (La Republica weighed in with an interesting interview with the president of Fiat, who pays tribute to Marx -- stuff like that, not to mention expanded coverage of the Pope's critical view of the USA and its engorged consumerism).


Since I've already discussed the dreadful politician several times for MINDFIELD (see the "Visit to Hell" or the article proposing to conduct a national day to burn the Nixon stamp) the demon ought to be exorcised -- but he's back in my dreams, flashing his classic victory signs, cackling triumphantly while he autographs his memoirs, grabbing the Chianti bottle in the middle of dinner, downing it in a single gulp, informing us in a deep Kissingerian voice that the nuclear balance of power between India and Pakistan is essential in maintaining the delicate economy of the emerging democracies in Burma and Cambodia, that Ronald Reagan's triumph over the Soviets has made safe for free enterprise.

Some background:

The most striking thing about Italy is its sense of history, the main thing that gringos pay to see when they come here. This particular region's official record goes back to 181 B.C., when the Romans stomped the native Celts and set up the port of Aquilea to get control the Adriatic. It was once one of the top ten biggest cities in the whole Roman Empire. Augustus Caesar actually partied here with King Herod (of Biblical notoriety) when Herod sailed up from Palestine. The Romans held onto it through numerous ups and downs until the Lombards, one of the many marauding Germanic tribes, sacked it in 568. (Though they did a middling job, as some of the ruins are still in remarkably unruined condition. There's rows of hefty Roman columns and statues of serious looking Roman dudes in their togas and naked goddesses, and even some of the FLOORS are still walkable -- like the wondrous mosaic in the cathedral, with its Jonah and the Whale theme, where colorful fish spash around, naked fishermen cast their lines, and bright birds on shore still seem to sing.)

Aquileia went downhill and reverted to a malarial swamp for hundreds of years, but the area recovered in medieval times, was taken over by Venice in 1420, but in 1509 came under Austrian control until the end of World War I. The town of Gorizia itself has a castle on top a hill where you can see for miles of mountainous green countryside. It was first built in the 11th century after the emperor Otho III of Germany gave the land to the bishop of Aquileia. (How the descendants of marauding Germans eventually got to be declared emperors is something I've never quite figured out. I'm not even clear on the concept of how big the territory has to be to qualify as an empire. Otho's turf was nowhere near as big that of Augustus.)

Anyhow, wherever you turn are reminders of this long past: Roman ruins, medieval churches and castles, etc. The region was severely hammered in both world wars, and like so many places in Italy, there are memorials -- long lists of names carved in stone to commemorate those who fell in the world wars. In a park downtown is a huge monument consisting of a pile of big broken chunks of concrete and assorted remains of buildings blasted down in the war. You look at it and wonder if maybe they've finally got it right, that maybe, after a string of wars dating back to prehistoric times, maybe they have figured out better ways to handle disputes. Some of the neighboring countries certainly haven't. Looking from the castle on the hilltop of Gorizia you can see into the green valleys and mountains and tiled rooftops and spires of the new country of Slovenia, which was part of the former Yugoslavia. It looks tranquil there, but the rest of what was Yugoslavia is a bloody struggle among the Bosnians, Serbs, and Croatians.

Which brings me back to Nixon, because we in the United States are amazing in our attempts to deny history. We're the New World, not burdened by all that baggage of history, all those Othos and Augustuses, Herods and avenging Visigoth tribes, free from the ancient feuds that trouble the Old World from Russia to Yugoslavia to Rwanda to the hyperventilating nuclear wannabes in India and Pakistan. Oddly enough, though, at the same time that we deny history, we spend piles of money on it for museums and monuments and theme parks and university studies and mock Civil War organizations. But these efforts tend to confine history to a kind of graveyard, where you come and pay due respects, leave it buried, rather than let it spill into everyday life. History as another safe, even comforting, consumer experience.

But try as we might to deny it or confine it or commodify it, it still slop over into everyday life, practically drooling out of the television. Actually, we're TERRIBLY BOTHERED BY HISTORY -- so troubled that we dedicate prodigious effort to the REWRITING OF HISTORY. The more we deny the importance of the past the more frantically we revise it. And nowhere has this rewriting been more dedicated than in the remaking of Richard Nixon, a revision that has not even been equaled by the complete Ramboistic rewrite of the history of the Vietnam War.

And that's why the son of a bitch keeps haunting. On the first leg of the flight to Italy I sat next to a bright, young man, who was educated at one of California's best universities, and who had comfortingly strong leftist views. But his understanding of Nixon was completely unhaunting. He had absorbed (from a thousands points of darkness -- black holes -- in American culture) the basic idea that Nixon was good on foreign policy, that he made a big "mistake" with Watergate, that he deserved credit for "opening the door" to China.

I spent the better part of two hours deconstructing his rosy view of Nixon, all the while wondering whose wretched purpose it served to rewrite this history in a country that cares less about history than any other. No sooner had I finished recounting one part of Nixon's forgotten history than the bright young man probed me with another question, stirring the vilest of political memories, provoking me to a breathless run through Nixon's career, from Nixon's first and only useful public service -- as head of the California division of the World War II rubber drive -- to his revival as an "elder statesman."

By the end of the discussion, Nixon was not only fully restored to his rightful, hard-earned role as a major American villain, but we realized who it served to revive him as a noble man, rather than the cruel precursor who made safe the way for Reagan and Bush. My new young friend came to understand why there was such a desperate need to rewrite Nixon's history -- why Nixon had to be rapidly converted from a demon to a patron saint of international good will. He represented, more completely than any figure in modern history, the demons of U.S. imperialism, the Cold War, the weapons trade, the brutality of our global assault on the poor, and the unfettered promotion of naked capitalist interest under the cloak of American idealism. If we had been forced to remember Nixon as he was, we would be looking straight into the foulest and craziest part of our homicidal souls and confronting our criminal record, a reckoning that would ill prepare us for the current global advance of multinational corporations under the banner of Americanism.

History turns out to be supremely important because it shows us exactly how to live with the present. This explains why Bill Clinton, whose noblest political act was to avoid service in the Vietnam War, ended up blubbering at the funeral of Nixon, commander-in-chief and killer of millions. What an unfathomable horror it would be to own up to the crimes of Richard Nixon, which are the nations' crimes, from the ruined lives of U.S. citizens during the 1950s Red Scare (of which Nixon was a far more important actor than the scapegoat McCarthy, after whom the period is conveniently misnamed), to the massacres in Chile in 1973 to the support of dozens of dictators and war-mongers in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. What a stirring of conscience and remorse a true reckoning would demand. What incalculable reparations payments would be exacted by an honest history.

No wonder, then, that we need a friendly Nixon renowned for "opening doors," like a travelling salesman -- like the salesmen we are. We can't possibly deal with a Cold Warrior or a crook or a war monger or cynical egomaniac, when we need a Wise and Visionary Statesman who maketh the world safe for markets. Forgive us our trespasses, lay out the samples, because we've got stuff to sell! Good Yankee stuff. Everything from TV dinners to gangsta rap. Because we have decided that in markets is the happy and prosperous future of humanity. That salvation is a global economy, unrestricted sales, unbounded ever-expanding production, and icons of Mickey Mouse enshrined in every town square in the world. Let the dead bury their dead, or better yet, prop them up in a theme park in Botswana or Nevada from whence the profits will surely trickle down to every peasant and privatized pension fund on the planet. For us to believe in our products and to market our goods we must believe in our goodness, our finger-licking good American goodness, and that means only good guys in good history for good people like ourselves who, thank our good American God, best know what's good for even the worst among us.

But enough for now, we're off to check out more of the historical sites. Watch for the next and hopefully last installment of this unfortunate episode of recovered memory, where we delve into what his first victim, Jerry Voorhis, called "The Strange Case of Richard Milhous Nixon."

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