Below is the latest The Pain -- When Will It End?
Updated 07/30/08


ANNOUNCEMENTS: A reminder about my planned reading tour to promote my next collection, Fuck Them All: A Chronicle of the Era of Darkness, Volume II next spring. If you have at any time rashly offered lodging, liquor, or less savory forms of hospitality to me and have not thought better of it since, please reiterate those offers now so that I can plan my route. And if you know of a good bookstore in your vicinity that might be interested in hosting a slideshow and reading, please recommend it.


Artist's Statement

I got to thinking about this cartoon when I read an op-ed in the Times by Bob Herbert on Al Gore’s envelope-pushing advocacy of 100% conversion to renewable energy sources within ten years, and his glum certainty that it would be D.O.A. in the national discourse. “When exactly was it that the U.S. became a can’t-do society?” he asked. I am not providing a link to this op-ed because on re-reading it it occurs to me that my whole cartoon is stolen from it, but he, too, recalled this country’s great defining achievements of the twentieth century: World War II, the Marshall plan, the Civil Rights era, the Apollo program. When did we lose faith in our ability to pull off great, audacious things? In Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy about climate change he envisions unprecedentedly huge, hubristic global engineering projects--the U.S. Army Engineering Corps restarting the stalled thermohaline circulation by dumping trillions of tons of salt into the oceans, for example. What seems so heartbreakingly implausible about this scenario is not the Herculean physical and logistical challenge of it, but the political will that would be necessary to initiate it. I really can’t see this country, rigidly ruled as it is by old lizard-eyed oil barons like Dick Cheney, men with mechanical hearts who’d rather sell out their grandkids’ futures than see a quarterly drop in profits, converting to renewable sources of energy until they have wrung the very last dime from the last consumer insecure enough about his penis size to buy the last Hummer on the last used-car lot in America. I keep thinking of Chris Rock’s routine about how we used to cure diseases. "
What's the last shit a doctor cured?" he asks. "Polio. You know how long ago polio was? 1952. That's like the first season of Lucy."

You think they're gonna cure AlDS? No--they can't even cure athlete's foot. They ain't curing AlDS. Shit, they ain't never curing AlDS. Don't even think about that shit. They ain't curing it, 'cause there ain't no money in the cure. The money's in the medicine. That's how you get paid: on the comeback. That's how a drug dealer makes his money: on the comeback.


Panel 1: The Empire State building in fact took 410 days to construct. It was the tallest building in the word for forty years and remains so in my heart, even as Pluto will always remain our ninth planet. Surrounding the base of the building in my drawing are several monumental structures of the Ancient world: from left to right, the Pharos Lighthouse, the legendary Tower of Babel (drawn, hastily, after Breughel’s depiction), the Great Pyramids, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the Colossus of Rhodes. All of these, except for the Tower of Babel (which was probably based on the Etemenaki, a ziggurat in Babylon), were real. I was dweebily obsessed with the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World as a child. My favorite was the Phraos, which by contemporary accounts may have been more than 600 feet tall, unsurpassed in height by any human construct for sixteen centuries.

As a former connoisseur of very tall buildings and an American citizen, I’m increasingly embarrassed and disgusted by the stymied state of the Freedom Tower. It was bad enough when they replaced Daniel Liebeskind’s rather graceful, futuristic design that echoed the Statue of Liberty with an ugly hulking bunker that turns a blind concrete face to the street like some titanic cenotaph or Temple of Phobos, a Brutalist monument to the culture of fear fostered by the Bush Administration. But the fact that it’s been seven years since the destruction of the World Trade Center, and that, in that time, we’ve done jack shit at ground zero except sell ghoulish souvenirs to rubbernecking tourists is a shame upon the nation. It seems somehow disgracefully emblematic of this country’s inability to do a single fucking thing right under the reign of its illegitimate idiot frat-boy king. I realize that the Ground Zero fiasco is a bureaucratic clusterfuck implicating about a dozen New York city and state agencies as well as the feared organizations of 9/11 widows, and yet it seems to me that a really inspiring symbolic gesture for President Obama to make at his inauguration would be to issue some sort of executive mandate to get something built on that spot pronto. It would provide us all, as a country, some emotional closure on that ghastly open wound, and herald a new era of what America's one true and rightful King called Taking Care of Business.

Panel 2: This is the unfairest panel in the cartoon, since I’m certainly we could still win a world war if only someone would fight us in one. My friend Ellen, a reader of John Keegan’s excellent military histories, pointed out to me that we simply don’t fight pitched battles anymore. The Russians really let us down when they just collapsed like a stack of towels piled too high instead of duking it out on Battlefield Europe like we were gearing up for for fifty years. Now we’ve got all these cool toys and no one to play with. We’ve got radar-invisible planes and our enemies don’t have radar. We’ve got bombs that can vaporize cities and our enemies live in caves. We’ve got the best-trained army on earth and our enemies have girls blowing themselves up on buses. Sucks, man.

Panel 3: Okay maybe we didn’t completely rebuild Europe in four years but by the end of the Marshall Plan’s implementation the economies of most of the countries in Europe were outperforming their prewar levels. It’s hard to believe me managed this when, after seven and six years of occupation, respectively, we can’t even get the people of Afghanistan or Iraq to quit blowing each other up already. (Gone are the days when you captured the enemy’s capital and that was it, like in Capture the Flag, they had to give up.)

New Orleans—talk about a shame upon the nation! An entire American city was destroyed--and one of our best cities, too, one of the least American, the most untouched by the scourge of Puritanism. (I still remember my awe at learning there were drive-thru daquiri stands in New Orleans.) And not only did our federal government let it drown, it then, instead of rebuilding it—as we did Berlin, the capital of Hitler’s empire—just said, nah, you know what? On second thought, fuck it. This is the behavior of junkies and terminal winos, people who no longer care about themselves enough to bother keeping their homes clean or fixing things or carrying out the most basic functions of taking care of themselves. The toilet gets stopped up and they just close the bathroom door and start crapping in a bucket.

By the way, I don’t necessarily agree with this character’s* implication—I just thought it was what the character would believe, and a funny punchline. Personally I don’t think the Bush administration let the people of New Orleans starve on the rooftops because they were black, but because they were poor. (Okay--it probably didn't help that they were mostly black.) This administration doesn’t give a shit about anyone who didn’t contribute to their campaign. Those people were not only broke, and probably Democrats, they weren’t even voters. And I think Bush and company still see the whole episode as a P.R. snafu rather than the shameful moral failure that it was. As I’ve said before, this was the moment when most Americans lost faith in the war in Iraq, because they realized that this government wasn’t competent to carry out its most essential functions, much less an ambitious and complicated undertaking like a foreign occupation. It laid bare the divide between the elites, by and for whom the government is run, and the citizenry, who are, like the Iraqis, the subjects of an indifferently managed occupation. It became shockingly clear that our government no longer had any intention of keeping up its end of even the most basic Hobbesean social contract. It’s a useful lesson to remember in case my friend Rob is right and the next few years see fossil fuel depletion, food shortages, and the general collapse of infrastructure: do not expect the people in charge to do anything to help. By the time most people are considering shooting their fellow churchgoers and PTA members over the last can of creamed corn on the shelf, our leaders will already be on private jets bound for gated compounds in Belize.

Panel 4: Then again, maybe this is the unfairest panel in the cartoon. No criticism of NASA’s competence implied. I’m a big fan of the Hubble, the Mars rovers, and the various unmanned probes that’ve sent back such beautiful images. I’m just reiterating my wistful complaint, often stated, that living in the future is less cool than I was led to believe it would be. Most of the technological advances have been in the area of consumer gadgetry rather than big, exciting breakthroughs. I’m not asking for faster-than-light drive or time travel. I just hoped I’d get to walk on another planet, or at least the lameass old Moon, for crying out loud, before I died. Instead we’re trying to fix the toilet on the space station. Some guy did just perfect a jetpack that’ll work for longer than a minute but it's roughly the size of a Geo and appears to lift the operator four inches off the ground.

This ‘ancient astronaut’ business was huge in the Seventies, when I grew up. (It was recently resurrected as a pulp trope in the last Indiana Jones film.) I remember realizing, sometime in middle school, how much it would explain if human beings were a hybrid between apes and some truly intelligent alien species. Then I grew up and realized this idea was stupid. Not everybody did. This assumption that aliens must have helped ancient humans build the Pyramids or Stonehenge speaks of a basic lack of faith in human ingenuity, the same lack of faith evident in the crackpot accusation that the government faked the moon landing, or the 9/11 wackjobs’ tired rejoinder that, if you think their accusations are incredible, what’s really hard to believe is that the whole thing was planned by a few guys in a cave! Well, actually, that’s easy to believe. Human beings’ ignorance and cruelty are equalled only by their brilliance and daring.

In the same way, I feel like lately Americans have lost some fundamental faith in our own ingenuity and boldness--we no longer believe ourselves capable of great things. Can we really be the blood descendants of the same people who turned the great eastern forest into a megalopolis, the Great Plains into a breadbasket; who built Manhattan and Mount Rushmore and the Hoover Dam; who split the atom, crushed the Third Reich and Imperial Japan, invented the movies and rock and roll, and walked on the moon? This nation of obese, illiterate consumers and litigants, these pampered whining puds who’d sell out the liberties their forefathers died for in exchange for a little illusory safety? What the hell ever happened to us, anyway? I’m reminded me of how Peter Bogdanovitch* sometimes ruefully introduced himself in the 80s: “I used to be Peter Bogdanovitch.” We used to be the Americans.

Understand, I’m not being sentimental about the past, indulging in nostalgia for a time I never knew: I prefer living in a time when it’s no longer okay to talk about “niggers” or “faggots,” when we can see photographs of the moons of Neptune, when a man can view more pornography than existed on the whole planet in 1945 in one afternoon at the click of a button. Even the ancient Greeks romanticized bygone eras; in the time of Homer they believed that they were living in an Iron Age, enervated and decadent compared to the distant Golden Age of larger-than-life heroes like Achilles and Odysseus.

But in the coming years we may have to deal with some of the greatest challenges to civilization and survival that our species has faced since the last ice age, and it seems as if most of us are afraid we’re not up to it. There’s something wistfully pessimistic about the book The World Without Us and the various cable TV specials that have adapted or copied it, with their vividly rendered CGI scenes of our buildings and bridges collapsing, our monuments eroding. There’s a morbid yearning behind these visions, disturbingly like an adolescent’s fantasies about his own funeral. Adolescents like to daydream about such things becausse the prospect of facing their actual futures is so unimaginable, and hence terrifying. Come on, everybody! The game’s not over yet! I believe it was Patrick Henry, at a meeting of the delegates of the Colony of Virginia at St. John’s Church in Richmond on March 23rd of 1775 who uttered the now-famous speech:

Over? Did you say ‘over’? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no! And it ain’t over now! ‘Cause when the going gets tough… [long pause] …the tough get goin’! Who’s with me? Let’s go! Come on! AAAAAAHHHH—[runs out alone; returns]

What the fuck happened to the Delta I know? Where’s the spirit? Where’s the guts--huh? This could be the greatest night of our lives, but you’re gonna let it be the worst! ‘Ooh, we’re afraid to go with you, Bluto, we might get in trouble.’ WELL, JUST KISS MY ASS FROM NOW ON! Not me! I’m not gonna take this! Wormer: he’s a dead man! Marmalard: dead! Niedermeyer… [response: “dead!”] LET’S DO IT! GO! GO! GO! GO! YEAAAAAAGGHHHHHH!



*Whom longtime readers will recognize as protagonist of the classic cartoon “Yep, It’s a Bigass Tragedy”

** Younger readers may not even have heard of director Peter Bogdanovitch, but, believe it or not, after the release of his films The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc? in the early 70s, he was as hot a commodity and big a critical darling as was Quentin Tarantino after Pulp Fiction, or David Lynch after Blue Velvet. After the usual hubris and follies and some ghastly personal tragedies his career foundered and he fell from the fickle grace of Hollywood. You may have seen him in recent years as the therapist’s therapist on The Sopranos.


Note: Don't forget our donation button, directly below. An original cartoon by B. Kliban has come up for sale. I aim to have it.


BACK TO The Pain Homepage