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My 1933 Nightmare
The events of recent decades have been ominous.
The events of recent weeks more so.
It's not so much, I guess, the visage of obese, over-fifty, white men angrily wrecking even the tattered remnants of the democratic process in this country that is most disturbing. We've seen that before.
I think it's the willful ignorance translated into incoherent, and in fact ironically self-defeating, rage that I find most discouraging. Can we really live in a country populated by so many fools, people who can so readily, proudly and belligerently be made into tools of their own destruction? Can the greatest political, economic, cultural and military power on the world's stage possibly be so incredibly backward at its core?
Consider this passage: "The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil."
These words were written by a person who might well now be vice-president of the United States, had the economic crash of our time come a few months later. And who, had that in fact transpired, and had one old man named McCain sometime later then met his actuarially not-improbable death, could have become the American president and leader of the free world.
So, okay, maybe that horror scenario is not so novel. After all, Nixon was in the White House for six years. And what was George W. Bush, really, other than Sarah Palin in trousers?
But what seems to me new about this moment is the political road rage, the thuggishness of masses of Americans who not only are venting about insane nonsense, not only are undermining their own interests acting as marionettes of laughing corporate predators, and not only are taking down democracy around themselves in order to do so, but are in fact also destroying the entire Enlightenment project of rationality-based management of public affairs as well. The single most frightening characteristic of this movement, to my mind, is that fact that no amount of evidence or logic could persuade these folks to abandon the lies they've attached themselves to, like a pit bull clamped to the leg of some poor SOB's pants.
What does it take to get someone to the point that they believe that the US Congress is passing a healthcare reform bill that will allow the government to exterminate seniors? What does it take for them to impute that motive to a president from the feeble Democratic Party? And, at that, one of the most Milquetoastian creatures to hit Washington since Hubert Humphrey ran for president acting like he was a guy named Hubert Humphrey? From Minnesota, no less.
What do you have to do to humans to get them so stupefied that they believe Obama's Hawaiian birth was some sort of conspiracy, replete with fake 1961 newspaper announcements? What sort of powerful drugs does one have to be on to make the argument that this rather considerably conservative president is a socialist? And then to call him a fascist in your next breath, blissfully unaware that the chasm separating the two ideologies not only makes them wholly different, but, indeed, oppositional. (You know, like in World War II. Maybe they've even heard of that.)
In fact, this is not a matter of stupidity, though there's loads of that to go around. But I bet that when it comes to finding arcane deductions to insert into their tax forms, these folks are actually quite clever. I bet a lot of them could reel off sports statistics or bible verses that would put your head in a fog. No, it's not stupidity. Something else is going on here.
It's certainly not a matter of factuality, either. It's astonishing to imagine that anyone might perceive the hopelessly flimsy Obama administration – even if it wasn't directly following the folks who brought you the Dick Cheney vision of executive power – as some sort of dictatorial Bonapartist project. Are we even talking about the same human being here? Do they really mean the Obama who keeps trying to be bipartisan while Republicans trash him viciously at every juncture (including even members of Congress questioning the legitimacy of his American birth)? Do they really mean the guy who continually defers to Congress to shape the major legislative initiatives he claims to be in favor of? Are talking about the dude who lets a handful of Blue Dog Democrats roll him at every turn? This, even after eight years of Bush, we're supposed to believe is some sort of totalitarian imperial president hell-bent on bringing fascism to America???
No, this isn't about lack of intellect or the remotest correspondence to reality. It seems pretty clear to me that this is almost entirely about fear. This is the empire crashing, and the former master class within it crashing as well. Both are falling to ordinariness and worse. They always were ordinary, of course, and always tools for exploitation by economic predators, but at least back in the day it wasn't such a struggle to be middle class. And, most importantly, they could always feel good by telling each other that at least they were better than the hated bitches, darkies and fags. Oh, and Arabs. Beating them up, literally and figuratively, was (and remains) a good way to remind yourself of that superiority.
But now even that small bit of compensation is gone. Your country can't win a war against a bunch of third world ragheads. Your boss is cutting your salary again. The womenfolk have their own source of income now, and no longer have to put up with your blundering sexual advances to keep a roof over their heads. Perverts are marrying each other left and right. And now – WTF? – there's some Harvard-educated spade in the White House, along with, even worse, his uppity-looking Harvard-educated all-superior-like even spadier woman.
Of course, this has been going on since the 1970s, as America's post-war hegemony began to erode internationally, and within the country white males were being challenged for their domestic dominance as well. These "Reagan Democrats" – i.e., consummately selfish pricks who were happy to take government largesse when it was helping to bring them into the middle class, but then immediately pulled the ladder up behind themselves afterwards, demanding tax cuts – began to lash out politically, responding to any line of crap that would harmonize with their embarrassing victimization trope by promising a feel-good response offering the muscular bludgeoning of women and dark people, both at home and abroad. In reality, of course, they were voting for a political movement that was talking tough-guy nationalism and scapegoating gays and other out-groups, but purely as a mask for further savaging the prosperity of these very idiot voters supporting their own undoing. In exchange for some cheap rhetoric and the occasional third-world war, they lost their unions, they lost their good jobs to cheap overseas (and, of course, violently non-organized) labor, they lost government benefits like inexpensive higher education, and they lost a society where the gap between the middle class and economic elites wasn't on the order of a standard-issue banana republic.
So what's different today? I think there are big differences – at least of degree – on six fronts.
First, there is a marriage of convenience today between the economic oligarchy and regressive politicians which makes the era of Dwight Eisenhower look like Sweden by comparison. I would say the single most fundamental fact of American politics in our time is that economic elites have walked away from the long-standing grand bargain of the 1930s through the 1970s. They are, simply put, no longer satisfied to be ridiculously wealthy, and now demand to be obscenely so. Instead of looking at the middle class as a source of national pride, it is for them an irritant to see even that small pittance of money in other people's hands. And, thus, they are trying (and succeeding) at reversing the basic deal that brought so much prosperity to so many American families in the mid-twentieth century, seeking a return to the good old days of Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge. Today's Republican Party has become simply an instrument of that process – all the rest is window-dressing for marketing purposes. Perhaps the best exemplar of this imperative was the (so far) unsuccessful play at privatizing Social Security. Wall Street looks at that sitting mountain range of money – within view, but just beyond reach – in sheer ball-busting frustration. It is one of the few government activities (as opposed to healthcare, military hardware, prisons, etc. etc.) that the overclass hasn't yet been able to profitize. Why should seniors have that money, they growl over brandy and cigars, when billionaires could instead? In short, the whole purpose of the political right has shifted dramatically in the past three decades. Now, it's entirely about the money.
Second, the level of deceit has grown exponentially. Americans are now being told lies of astonishing proportions, as both the ‘birther' and ‘deather' movements of recent weeks make plain. Before those it was Obama the socialist, Obama the fascist, Obama the sell-out apologist for America, Obama the secret Muslim, Obama the underminer of national security, Obama the pal of terrorists, and so on, and so on. It's to the point now that I feel sorry for satirists (including me). What can you possibly make up to top these amazing idiocies? Obama the Martian imposter of a homo sapien? Obama the JFK assassin? Obama the twentieth 9/11 hijacker? (Who secretly parachuted out at the last moment, and was picked up in the Hudson by a nuclear-powered speedboat driven by Saddam, and then transferred onto a black helicopter that landed minutes later on the roof of the UN!)
Third, the sophistication of presentation has grown dramatically. The right has really learned how to market its nonsense in a barrage that only enhances credibility from repetition. You get it on the radio, on TV, from politicians, at church, on your computer and cell phone, in your mailbox and at the school board meeting. This is a full-court press by clever people who know how to market soap flakes and the human kind as well. There are many examples of this, but one of the most clever has been the defining of wholly corporate center-right political figures like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama as extreme leftists, and the defining of the mainstream media as hopelessly biased toward liberalism. Perhaps as much as any other factors, these moves have employed framing and intimidation to effectively eliminate any real progressive ideas from the national political discourse. Bravo, boys. If it all wasn't so sickeningly pernicious, I'd have to give them a standing ovation for cleverness and, sadly, success.
Fourth, the level of credulity is breathtaking. In the past, you could understand why a few crackers in ‘Bama, third-grade education and all, could be seduced into blamin' the niggrahs for their lousy low-rent lives and joining up with the KKK. But look at the audiences today for Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity and the rest of the scary monsters all over television and radio. These are giant crowds of tens of millions, especially collectively counted, and I don't think these people are watching and listening just to laugh at the bozos on the air.
Speaking of whom, what in the world are these freaks doing on the air? What in the world happened to this country such that, fifth, all this massive deceit has gone mainstream in the media and the Republi-con Party? It's astonishing today, from the perspective of prior decades, what comes out of the mouths even of leadership figures in one of America's two major political parties, and what goes unchallenged as conventional wisdom. There have always been regressive predators about in American politics, to be sure. But in years past they would have been identified as such and marginalized accordingly. Today, they are more likely to become president or Speaker of the House, and a slavishly obedient media dares not correct even the most obscene lies having the most dangerous consequences (can you say "Iraq"?).
Finally, unlike prior decades, the progressive counter-narrative has all but vanished from the mainstream. The Democratic Party is nothing more than the sorta not-Republican Party, and stands for nothing other than a quieter and more slowly-unfolding version of the GOP's crimes. Nobody ever votes Democratic anymore. They vote against the Republicans when they rise to their very most noxious worst behavior. We have a president who is supposed to be a radical leftist, and says almost nothing to combat the fascist tide of thuggery now threatening the country. Instead, he continues to seek approval from Republicans who never give it to him, game him at every turn, and repay his conciliatory efforts by asking for investigations into his birth certificate. Senator Chris Dodd responded to last week's Reichstag-burning events with this helpful bromide: "It's a challenge, no question about it, and you've got to get out there and make the case. This is not the time for the faint-hearted." After which he continued to lead the very faintest-of-heart in their deafening silence. Even supposedly liberal activist groups don't demand very much anymore, other than the protection of the status quo. For example, there is pretty much no serious player in or out of government right now talking about a single-payer system at this once-per-century occasion of momentous potential change in the American healthcare system.
The upshot of all this is a predatory-when-not-defunct political system going so far off the rails that it is now migrating from insanity to violent insanity. Just ask your (former?) local abortion provider. Just ask your congressional representative, if you can penetrate the police escort now necessary to keep these people from becoming the victims of mob rule.
This should not be taken lightly. There is huge anger out there, being stoked incessantly by those who profit from it, in one way or another. Most frightening of all, it is, as far as I can see, completely impervious to rational discourse. Suppose you could put a mountain of indisputable evidence in front of the eyes of those who believe Obama is seeking to murder seniors. Does anyone think any of these folks could actually be persuaded to abandon that shockingly absurd fallacy?
And this is, at the end of the day, the scariest aspect of all concerning the current political moment. America now possesses a massive cohort of people who have simply transcended rational discourse – the sine qua non of democracy, and the real deity worshiped by Enlightenment figures like those who founded the country. Two-and-a-half centuries later, and we're moving rapidly backwards, toward the seventeenth century, and away from democracy, rule of law and the marketplace of ideas, debated and thoughtfully considered.
Everybody talks about fascism nowadays, not least those on the right who remarkably manage to call Barack Obama a fascist in the same breath as they label him a socialist. The term has been beaten into near meaninglessness from ubiquitousness of application. (Could this be another extremely clever semantics ploy of the right-wing marketing machine, taking the term out of use now that it is legitimately applicable, by over- and ab-using it? Damn, these guys are good.)
Still, I've seen the video clips from the congressional constituent meetings last week. I saw the ones from the Sarah Palin rallies in 2008. I remember the 2000 Brooks Brothers riot, one of the most despicable acts in American history, which resulted – because of one of the most cowardly acts in American history – in shutting down vote-counting in Miami. I saw at least two purple-hearted American war heros turned into national security threats by a team of cowards who avoided war when it was their turn. None of the rabble on the right could make the Grand Canyon size leap to see that for what it plainly was. Today I see the incoherent rage, the senseless foaming at the mouth that not only doesn't fit reality, but in fact runs completely contrary to it. I see the current attempts to intimidate the government and to shut down the discussion of issues.
And I have to ask, do those people not resemble Brown Shirts more than anything else one can bring to mind?
And is our current political moment not beginning to stink of Berlin, 1933?