As We See Them
Liberals and Nuders
It's not unusual that something born out of genius, like the American political system, runs down, even burns out, after a period of time. The genius is it's ability to revive and reclaim lost virtues, lost energies while focusing on the present and future. I experienced this once in the late 70's, the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era when even the President made a famous speech about the "crisis of confidence." The exhaustion of liberalism at that time left the field open for the conservatives who exemplified a lot more political vitality. But, it's beginning to burn out itself in the post-2000 election period.
It's very difficult to approach politics logically or theoretically. And to approach it like a crazed madman attacking some stick in the ground he takes for a devil is, finally, a losing battle. The best approach is that of a sober-headed person who studies the problems rather than the politics. We have spent almost a full century in understanding ourselves as sexual beings; we have spent very little in trying to understand ourselves as political animals.
Ah, we wish to maintain a value that this other animal wants to destroy or replace.
The Democrats are lining up their candidates for the '04 election. The first stigma they try to shake off is the word liberal. That it has become a bad word the past several decades shouldn't be a shock. Liberalism depends on two elements missing today: An enlightened generation, and charismatic leaders. The three most charismatic were shot down in the space of 5 years in the 1960's. No one, in the liberal camp, has come near to the Kennedy's or King. In a way, the old-time intellectual liberals were gunned down, too, by the radicals who stormed the barricades and took over an institution not prepared for them. The radicals destroyed every hope they could discover in the liberals in the belief that the culture needed a wild leap, an instant transformation, from one state to another. Most of the liberal hopes undermined the radical myth and so had to be deconstructed and vanquished from the campus. Simply because the radicals are now wandering dazed around campus, wondering why things didn't quite work out, doesn't mean the liberals will return. Nothing is leading the current generation out of its own stupidity and torpor. It doesn't feel the necessity. It will, predictably, abandon it's bizarre distractions and want nothing but stability, security, and economic growth. The few who have any desire for enlightenment depend on the fabled 60's period that their teachers have told them about. The smart ones will see through the charade or will become disillusioned and move on. The civil rights movement and feminism were swallowed by neo-Marxism. The culture has picked up new, excellent habits in treating people with respect and encouraging them to express their potentials. The old movements, dare we say it, have become rather decrepit. But, we are not going to beat a dead horse. We will inspect the dead horse to see if there are any lessons in its death.
One chief cause is that the American intellectuals suckled at the dried up breasts of Europe. The great traditions of Europe died in the 20th century under the pressures of communism and fascism. The European intellectuals saw the death of Europe and, with it, their ability to change anything. So, they turned against everything. Our naive, inexperienced intellectuals swallowed the disgust whole and it turned them into fools. The truth of the matter is that America is in the nascent stage of its development as a world power. It's not at the end of anything. It has much vitality and dream and hope left in it. The Euro-American intellectuals can't fathom the fact.
Old-style liberalism needed a hopeful, charismatic leader like JFK or FDR. It needed a belief that America had stalled, thwarted by its contradictions. It doesn't need the Clintons. It doesn't need the Gores. It needs for the academics to go back to the basics and establish a more realistic relation to the society they are in. To, at the very least, get enough confidence in their abilities to leave off the putrid teats of old Europe. We have gone through a profound and fascinating period of time where the radical idea has withered on the vine. The sky is clear again for all kinds of interesting thoughts.
All that remains is personal animus, disguising itself as political ideas. A progressive era will return in the 21st century but only after solid, new ideas have been cultivated. A good progressive era is a shot of adrenaline through the massive nation-state. It saves it. But then, the adrenaline is absorbed and passed out of the body. The semi-tragedy is that the progressives, themselves, never seem to get this. And after the adrenaline? Security, growth, stability. The center. Clinton.
Politics doesn't end, obviously, but it moves from the head to the belly.
The conservative argument that the "media is liberal" leaves us cold. They should be scolded like naive children and reminded that the media exists to critique power. And the people get the critique they deserve. If they are dumbed-down and ignorant they get the types of critique you can find in any 2nd rate advocacy rag. If they demand something from the critique, as many citizens do, they can actually approximate objectivity and get a greater sense of the dynamics in play.
Journalism is the guy who is riding in a car and suddenly hears a noise from under the hood. He's not going to ignore the noise to appease the car gods, the car-selling gods, the technological gods. He's going to pull over, open the hood, and check what the noise is and what impact the noise is having with the operation of the car. The conservatives want him to ignore the noise while singing the praises of the car manufacturers and engineers who built it; along with the processes that brought the car from a raw state to a finished state.
The problem for journalism is that, like politics, it's dependent on an angle of attack that wears out. The angle of attack is dependent on the intellectual life at any given time. When it wears out, the people tire of the critique and watch games or good-looking women or cartoons. Many of the journalist blogs remind me of this. Many of them carry the weary thoughts of their professors on their backs. The furious abstractions thrown up against the walls of the government or down among the littered people does little good. If you are not going to explain the policy, explain why your political animus reproduces the sound of hyenas.
And if politics is only a mask for an eternal war let us see evidence that you understand the nature of this war and that you seek, as all peace-loving people do, to transcend the condition of war.
A quick look around forces us to come to the conclusion that the culture is divided between the frightened and the frightful.
We only know that in the absence of the structure of governance now in place we would war with each other in a desire to impose our own form of governance on anyone we could. So, we mark the system of governance as a good, imperfect as it is. It is healthier when the frightened and the frightful are kept at the edges, inside their lonely rooms seething against the corrupt world or plotting some minor crime that they believe will transform the world overnight.
Politics is often the expression of sickness rather than health.
One of the skills of the citizen is to prevent getting infected from the poison dumped into him or her by the politics of the day. Few escape wholly intact.
When people say that politics is "dirty" "underhanded," even, "sick," they are saying that is is neurotic. What is diagnosed as neurotic in the private individual is manifested in the light of day by political pressures. It appears a great deal is going on when in reality nothing is going on.
Learn from the neurotic at least that lesson.
What occurs in an organism when it "spins its own wheels" while effecting nothing? We believe its rooted life has been severed. And all the growth obtained above the rooted life decays and withers. This is, too, the fear of the neurotic as he watches this process occur in his own mind. He can ingenuously paint the brown, withered leaves green and he can offer up a bit of rubber tubing and call that a root and he will trick himself in believing that it is so; but all the while he will be smiling through hell. And, eventually, the truth will be known. It is as simple as calling a dead plant dead. "Let the dead bury the dead," which is the dare to all those who would enter a new life. Of course, the neurotics among our religious brothers and sisters accept the first image they secure in their mind and then go about trying to convert everyone else. The first image fades, breaks up, falls away into the pressures of failure and disillusionment until little is left but doubt or a strong belief in horned devils behind every pair of rather sad eyes. In the end, this type of neurotic political animal becomes a clone of some authority figure while spouting the blessings of freedom and spirit. And, at their worst, they become "ravening wolves in sheep's clothing." It's this type that emerges more frequently.
When the rooted life becomes severed, a man is unceremoniously thrown into hell. A man in hell will convince himself, after awhile, that, all in all, it's not so bad. And he will chirp, "with the power of naming things still intact I will exercise my freedom and call this place heaven or, at least, the door to heaven. I will name my way to heaven! That stink rising up? Sweet ambrosia. That slimy fiend crawling along the wall? A beautiful cocoon ready to open itself. That hideous, thrashing noise of hammer on anvil? Entertainment, my friend, entertainment!"
Criticism is one of the entertainment's for those in hell.
The era which nourished me is falling away. I see it all going away. I welcome most of the change as healthy and good; necessary to prepare for the difficult decades ahead.
The era of one's youth is collapsing; may it fall well and with some grace.
If we live another 25 or 30 years we may see another turning. What is new, now, will disintegrate like the suit on some deadman, dead 30 years. We hope we see the turning. We know this era will play out some of the seeds implicated by the daily life we see around us.
Re-invigorate the categories of freedom, individuality, responsibility, thought, imagination, etc etc.
One of the best exercises to leap out of the soggy events of our own times, is to read excellent newspaper accounts of other periods of time. For instance, the headlines that lead from Chancellor Adolph Hitler's infamous speech attacking the Versailles Treaty, as he pulled Germany out of the League of Nations, to the dropping of the atomic bomb just twelve years later, puts our present situation in a bit better perspective. Now, America is faced with an uncertain, even demoralizing threat but one that appears can be managed. There is not the sense of doom and panic that gripped the world during that twelve-year period. America, at that time, had very little control over world events. It was isolationist, licking the wounds of the Depression. Europe had been the center of world power for several centuries and when Hitler threatened Europe, he threatened every shred of order that existed at the time. We feel uncertain about our time but feel very confident that, eventually, we will control the situation.
Just three years after Hitler's speech came the Spanish Civil War. Then a few short years later Hitler moves into Austria and threatens the Sudatenland. And, two years later war breaks out. Hussein, who likes to fashion himself a Hitler or, at least, a figure of world note, brutal and savage as he is, is more a pest and finally must be dealt with. A dangerous pest considering the weapons he wants to possess and the situation with oil. And as we read about the Battle of Africa in 1942, one of the prime objectives for the Nazi's were the middle-east oil fields.
World War II remains one of the seminal events in world history. The only comparable event, in our time, to match it for importance was the adventure into space. Many people who are mystified by the emergence of America as a world-power need to understand this episode, these 12 years. The other 12 years to study are the years between the assassination of JFK in 1963 through the fall of Saigon in 1975. These were very significant years because America struggled with itself over the position it had won through W.W.II. Are we going through a similar 12 year period? In other words, another very significant moment that will define an era? Perhaps.
Of course, the past has its wonderful absurdities as well. Take the farmer in Long Valley, NJ who, in 1936 tried to organize anti-nudist rallies. "Searles, using binoculars, spotted a plump woman, wearing only a floppy straw hat. The corpulent woman waddled within 100 yards of the ambush and then splashed into a creek. Then two fat, bald headed men hove into view, entirely unclothed. When they came within throwing range, Searles whooped, leaped up, and hurled sticks at them..." All this while the Civil War was raging in Spain. Searles was upset at the "nuders," for moral reasons but his crusade was kicked into high gear when two people hurt themselves, craning necks from a car and a ladder to spot the nuders along the creek. Let us hope poor Mr. Searles didn't make it to our era. where the nuders are public figures making millions of dollars.
Fortunately, nothing is inevitable. What we'd like to see, rather than dramatic events, are long-term plans to transform the energy system and a more ambitious plan to explore the stars.
I invite comments on this column. Use the convenient form below and thanks!
January 14, 2003