I don’t particularly enjoy writing about personal details of my life, but I thought I should share a dream, in the hope that I can better understand it. Dreams are of course where the realities (what we know) morph into the symbolic (what we want ourselves to know, but often resist).
Some drag queen — a stranger I had never met before — told me he was sick and needed me to take him to the hospital. He seemed very ineffectual, and I was too busy with other things, so his request struck me as unreasonable, even ridiculous. Yet his very helplessness affected my conscience — even in the dream. As I contemplated this situation (and struggled with feelings of guilt), an ex lover appeared to tell me that I really should take this stranger to the hospital. That got my attention, because the ex died of AIDS in 1986, and I took him to one hospital or another more times than I like to think about. He died, of course, and needed help facing that.
When I awoke, I was thinking about the nature of decadence, and the meaning of these symbols of dying and death. My dead ex (Rod) was an upper class Mexican who thought like a Roman. He lived long enough to see the legacy of Vietnam as a Roman (especially a late-stage Roman) would have seen it. The rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the occupation of the American Embassy in Tehran were, in his view, a direct result of a failure of American resolve having emboldened people he considered truly barbaric and medieval. Christianity was in his view no match for Islam, but Americans were so steeped in Christianity that they didn’t get it. This was partially because Christianity, a religion of peace, was not set up or constructed to contend with Islam, a religion of war. The latter had the advantage of seeing the practical problems with Christianity, and thereby “improving” on its obvious (from a military standpoint) failings.
America offered a vision of freedom that was independent of Christianity, yet the Christian character of America was its Achilles heel. This country was, in my friend’s view, incapable of doing what James Lileks called “going Roman,” and instead wallowed helplessly while our president, a Sunday School teacher named Jimmy Carter, struggled lamely to be a good Christian man in the face of barbarism. It didn’t need to be that way, Rod thought.
These things go in cycles, and the struggle with Islamic radicalism was successfully (if briefly) postponed by Ronald Reagan’s militant stance. My friend Rod lay dying as Muammar Qaddafi fled Reagan’s air strikes disguised as a woman. (More here.) But that wouldn’t be the end of it, Rod opined. Obviously, he was right, even though it took many years (mostly spent in strained denial) for most Americans to see what was so plain to him.
After 9/11, it was quite clear that America was willing to fight. It almost appeared that the country had finally learned the true lesson of Vietnam.
Have we?
Perhaps I am being too arrogant in my assumptions. It was quite obvious to my friend Rod that the lesson of Vietnam was to be seen in the Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran. A failure of American resolve — real or perceived — had put the barbarians of the world on notice that this once strong, free country had absolutely no will to fight. Moreover, our freedom was held in deep contempt, and considered a direct threat to this new enemy — a tyranny enforced by medieval superstition.
From Rod’s Roman perspective, the point of Vietnam was not whether the United States should have entered the war. Nor were considerations of morality (especially the Sunday School variety) important.
It was whether America was willing to fight.
Nixon’s “Vietnamization” was put to the final test in a series of probing attacks (more here) by the North Vietnamese. Once it was seen that America would not enforce the peace treaty for which so many Americans had died, South Vietnam was lost. The mindless partying of the 1970s was hardly a victory party, and the hangover could not be erased.
Will Iraq become another Vietnam?
The difference this time is that we won’t have as long as a grace period to do the partying. None of this is to say that there’s anything decadent about partying, about freedom, or about sexuality. It’s just that the drag queens reminded me that some things have to be defended.
Thus, I think the drag queen in my dream serves as a symbol of latent decadence — but not of the “decadence” which so many Americans associate with that word.
Freedom is not decadence, but the failure to defend it is.
AFTERTHOUGHT: Lest anyone think I am belittling Christianity, I am not. But the fact remains, no matter how they have tried to spin it over the centuries, “Christian war” will always have an oxymoronic ring to it. “Islamic war,” on the other hand, goes by the name “Jihad.”