The drive from Denver to Santa Fe seemed interminable, but the beauty of the New Mexican landscape, from the Raton Pass just across the border with Colorado to the open cattle country after that – helped make up for the long distance. You know you are in a Latin land as you hit more and more Spanish language radio stations. As we approached the state’s capitol city, we listened to the Art Bell show. Art Bell is all over the radio dial, especially late and night and has attracted a huge audience, most of whom are obsessed with space aliens, alien abductions, “shadow” people, conspiracies of all kinds, and all other “para” phenomena. Most leftists have never heard of Art Bell, but they should know him (and all the other large-audience talk show hosts) because the many callers give important insights into what all too many people in the United States think is important. This is a land tailor-made for conspiracy theories and strange beliefs. These serve as a a substitute for thinking clearly, yet give their adherents the feeling that they have an inside track on things. Karen and I have concluded that we live in a nation of “bar talk;” everyone is an expert on everything, like the guy who won’t shut up on the barstool next to yours. There is no respect for real learning or an appreciation of the effort it takes to understand things. No doubt diehard fundamentalist religious beliefs function in a similar manner. As substitutes for thinking. I know from my many years of teaching undergraduates that the typical U.S. college graduate must certainly be the least knowledgeable in the world. The right-wingers rail against all the left-wingers on campus, but they have little to worry about. In the United States thoughtlessness rules, and bar talk is king.
And in the meantime, the rich keep getting rich, with wealth that would have put John D. Rockefeller to shame. They flaunt their riches like the robber barons of yore. We met a man at my book talk in Santa Fe (at Garcia Street Books, where we drew a good crowd, thanks to the excellent PR done by owner Ed Borins – a real gentleman – and Monthly Review intern Scott Borchert) from Johnstown. He knew all the old streets, bars, and names I knew so well from my thirty-two years at the college there. He had been a teacher, but he eventually got into financial planning. He and a friend generously took us to dinner, and he told us some interesting things about money. He travels to Washington DC each year and stays in a hotel there. He has noticed over the past couple of years that hotel prices have skyrocketed throughout the city. He began to ask hotel managers why. He was told that the huge sums of money being devoted to anti-terrorism are the main culprit. National security firms and consultants are on the public dole, scamming the government, no doubt in collusion with public officials who will probably soon be on their payrolls, and they go about their thefts, staying in fine hotel accommodations in such numbers that hotels, wanting to get in on the action, jack up their prices. Then the contractors submit a cost plus 20 percent bill to the taxpayers. Makes you feel more secure, doesn’t it? Our new friend also told us about some of the extravagances of the rich he had discovered. It is very difficult to buy the most luxurious automobiles (Certain models of Ferrari and Mercedes Benz, for example) unless you are prepared for a two or more year wait. Their order books are overflowing. The super-rich are buying enormous private jets, and their less wealthy class-mates are leasing planes, often in club-like arrangements, with yearly fees just to belong running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. I suppose the jets are badly needed, since I read recently that the rich now send their kids to summer camp in them; bus rides are just too traumatic. There is a growing market for truly gigantic ships as well, sometimes complete with “shadow” boats, refitted tugs in which the larger ships crew can bunk down. You can’t have the owners sleep in the same boat as the hired hands. Meanwhile the U.S. labor movement won’t get out front in a campaign for national healthcare. And parents keep saying that their kids who died in Iraq were “doing what they loved.” I’ll bet the contractors staying in hotel penthouses cry themselves to sleep every night. Let’s all just work our crappy jobs, come home, flip on the TV, drink and medicate ourselves to sleep, and tune in the bedside radio to Art Bell.
We made three stops in the “Land of Enchantment” (go to Santa Fe’s Georgia O’Keeffe museum for a good idea of just how enchanted the land appears. It’s best to see the land first, by driving say to Bandelier National Monument or up and over the Jemez Mountains or to O’Keeffe’s New Mexico home in Abequiu, and then examining the paintings in the museum. Friday nights from 5 to 8 are free.). The first place was Taos, home to the Indians in the famous pueblo that was the center of the great seventeenth century revolt against the Spaniards, aging hippies, and assorted newcomers, ranging from the rich and famous like Julia Roberts to those wanting to remake their lives on a simpler and more laid back scale. I signed books at Brodsky Books (on Paseo del Pueblo Norte), owned by Rick Smith. Rick laid out a little food spread for visitors and was in every way an engaging and thoughtful host. Stop by and say hello if you visit Taos. Muy simpático as they say. Several people came in to talk, and we sold a few books too. During the second hour, I met a man whose article in Monthly Review I edited. He said I was a tough editor! He is a physician who teaches at the University of New Mexico, and he has been instrumental in building an organization of doctors trying to see to the mental health needs of soldiers returning from Iraq. Most of these soldiers are seriously distressed, but the government has been giving them examinations on discharge that conclude that they had a pre-existing personality disorder. This makes them ineligible for government-paid mental health care. This would be unbelievable were it not for the grotesque and callous disregard for life shown by the Bush regime. Why would we expect this band of torturers to care if its own soldiers have been mentally deranged by this obscene war? Cheney and company probably think they’re wimps for not being able to engage in barbarous acts and stay sane.
At the Garcia Street Books talk, I also met a former student. He had been a biology major wanting to become a veterinarian. He also had strong scruples against dissecting animals that had been killed just for this purpose. He asked me for help with his biology professors, who were not at all sympathetic to him. I did what I could, and ultimately he obtained an aborted pig from a local farmer for his dissection. He did go to veterinary school, at Ohio State, and now has a practice in Santa Fe. He has very unpleasant memories of his undergraduate years, which seems a pity, since the biology profs could have worked with him to accommodate his needs. I always found that when I had a good student, it paid to be encouraging, to go that extra mile to help him or her fulfill whatever potential he or she had.
My left eye did not seem to be healing properly, and it was very hot, so I didn’t do much in Santa Fe this time. The days dragged, and we were glad to leave for a Borders Books in Albuquerque. We stayed in Santa Fe, as usual, at the Best Western on Cerrillos Road. We got a good rate considering it was summer and lots of events were going on in town, including the famous Santa Fe Opera. But the first room we were given smelled strongly of mold, and we demanded a move. I wrote about Santa Fe in the book, so readers can go there to find out what I think of it. It’s an interesting place, and you should see it for yourself and tell me what you find.
We left the Borders and drove for three and a half hours south, to Las Cruces, where we bunked down in a typically bare-bones Motel 6. No radio, no tissues, no hair dryer, no iron, a tiny TV with few stations, etc. Cheap but not as cheap as it should have been. There was a large pool, and we noticed that several families were enjoying it. We surmised that they were taking a weekend vacation, close to home and affordable. Next morning Karen drove twelve long hours to Austin, Texas. We drove for the first time past El Paso, which looked a mess from the highway. Just before town we noticed the largest cattle operation we had ever seen, mile after mile of cattle waiting for the hot sun to rise. The stench was considerable. We drove for nearly 500 miles on U.S. 10 before turning east toward Austin. This smaller road took us through the pretty town of Fredericksburg, with its German heritage and fine stone buildings. It was the day Lady Bird Johnson was laid to rest at the Johnson Ranch. It was interesting to drive right by it and through LBJ’s hometown of Johnson City. LBJ brought electricity to the West Texas hill country and lots more too. Lady Bird was fondly remembered all along the route from the ranch to Austin. I wonder if she ever gloated that she outlived her philandering husband by thirty years? Check out Robert Caro’s three-volume (so far) bio of LBJ for all the details of this most interesting politician’s life and times.