For at least the last four decades now I feel like I’ve been living in Beached America: a nation that has lost its values, even as it writhes in violent agitation, inflicting its military on the vulnerable regions of the planet.
It does so in the name of those lost values . . . democracy, freedom, equality. These are just dead words at this point, public relations blather, silently followed by a sigh: yada, yada, yada. Then we send in the drones.
This is the behavior of a nation that is spiritually beached. Ideas that could open up the future have long been gagged, mocked and marginalized, locked in a closet somewhere. No way can they be allowed to have political influence. Thanks, mainstream media.
Here, for instance, is the Washington Post, holding forth on the death of Antonin Scalia and the looming congressional impasse over the appointment of his successor. Rather than dig for what’s at stake, Post writer James Hohmann merely revels in the political gamesmanship of it all. Mitch McConnell’s decision to use the Republican Senate majority to block the president’s replacement choice is, he writes, “a bold and understandable gambit designed to prevent a leftward lurch in jurisprudence.”
But: “Assuming the president picks a Hispanic, African American or Asian American — bonus points if she’s a woman — this could be exactly what Democrats need to re-activate the Obama coalition that fueled his victories in 2008 and 2012.”
I quote these words simply because they’re typical of a media that has utterly divested its reportage of depth and value. They merrily describe the contours of the game of Big Politics to American news consumers. Bonus points if she’s a woman!
Whatever once mattered — civil rights, women’s rights, or the denial thereof — has morphed into some sort of meaningless political post-modernism, lots of yada yada but we all know that winning is the only thing that matters, and even that doesn’t really matter because it changes nothing. The deep reality in which we live cannot be touched.
This is Beached America.
It is in this context that I bring up Michael Moore’s new documentary, Where To Invade Next, not because it’s without flaws but because, my God, it rips back the surface of American politics and frees a fair number of imprisoned concepts — like, oh, forgiveness, childhood creativity, the honest embrace of one’s own history — and sets them loose in the present moment.
These concepts, or rather, this depth of possibility for a better, more compassionate world that they represent, which had political momentum up through the ’60s and early ’70s, when various movements — civil rights, of course, followed by the anti-war movement, feminism, gay rights, environmentalism — shattered Jim Crow and crashed the American political scene, have been stalled and muted, banned from presidential politics, reduced to an obscenity called “political correctness,” since Reagan, since Nixon.
This is Beached America.
Remarkably, this depth of possibility has made its presence felt in the 2016 presidential race. The media-corporate-military consensus that has claimed control over the national destiny for more than four decades is trembling. Possibility and human hope are coming back to life in the campaign for Bernie Sanders, who finally has begun putting his proposed social programs into the context of recklessly unchecked military spending: “When we went to war in Iraq, the trillions we spent there, not a problem,” he said this week in Michigan, comparing this to the dearth of funding available to solve Flint’s water crisis.
Also coming back to life in this campaign are the opposite of such ideas: the good old days of Jim Crow racism, blustering forth in the voice of Donald Trump, which has freed itself from political correctness.
Into these roiling waters paddles Michael Moore. The faux-premise of Where To Invade Next is that America’s military leaders, beside themselves over the utter failure of their wars since the Big One that ended in 1945, have asked for Moore’s advice about what to do next. This sends him on a literal tour of eight European countries, plus Tunisia, in search of something the United States can grab abroad other than oil.
What resonates about the ideas he “steals” from these countries is that they have serious depth and social implication. They only make sense in a social context devoted to the liberation of human potential — a conviction that that’s the point of our social structure.
Some of the ideas are fairly simple: more paid vacation time for workers (Italy), better lunches for schoolchildren (France). But they begin escalating in complexity — and controversy — as Moore forges across Europe.
In Norway, for instance, he looks at the prison system, which is truly focused on healing rather than punishment. In Norway’s maximum security prisons, convicted murderers have the keys to their own rooms, which look more like college dorms than medieval dungeons. At one point, Moore even interviews the father of a child murdered by Anders Breivik, the man who went on a racist, anti-immigrant rampage in that country in 2011, killing 77 people, most of them kids at a summer camp. Breivik was given a mere 21 years in prison. The dad talked about forgiveness.
Forgiveness! Is there a riskier concept to bring to the American public? The day after Breivik’s rampage, Mayor Fabian Stang of Oslo said, “I don’t think security can solve problems. We need to teach greater respect.” Moore reanimates this idea in his movie, puts it forth as a value to embrace. Most of the reviews I’ve read can’t mask their cynicism about it. But forgiveness isn’t the simple act the cynics see it as. Forgiving a terrible wrong means transcending rather than perpetuating it. This takes commitment and courage beyond anything our political system asks of us, but, as Moore implies, this is what the future asks of us.
In Germany, Moore visits an elementary-school classroom in which the students have been asked to bring an item precious to them — something they’d take with them if they were being forced to leave their homes forever. Each child places his or her keepsake in a suitcase, which symbolizes the suitcase of a Holocaust victim. The teacher closes the suitcase.
The idea Moore is stealing here is as “simple” as forgiveness. Acknowledge your history. Acknowledge your sins. America doesn’t acknowledge the genocide of Native Americans and shrugs off its legacy of slavery. At what cost?
What if such questions found their way into our national politics? Could real values — and their implications — enter the debate? Could a spiritually beached nation see a course for itself beyond endless war?