Friday, August 22, 2008

AMERICAN PROSPECTS

I’ve just finished reading the September issue of ‘The American Prospect’ (http://www.prospect.org/).

I’m noticing a trend among the Democratic-friendly (or ‘progressive’ or – much less frequently – ‘liberal’) elements of the media: as the election gets nearer, two distinct trends are revealing themselves. One is to unify as many disparate voter-groups as possible by emphasizing themes more broadly based than the usual ‘visions’ and ‘demands’ of the Identities. But the second is for those very same Identities to double-down and claim that this is their ‘moment’ to finally establish everything they’ve ever wanted and demanded. Thus on the one hand there are outreaching emphases on ‘economic’ concerns, say, while on the other there are glory-eyed prophesies of an ‘America’ where this or that Identity’s vision is and/or can be wholly fulfilled, put forth with – you should pardon the expression – a confident intensity usually only seen in history (or ‘herstory’) when in the company of that mother of all slogans: ‘God wills it!’

So on page 6 there is a discussion of the ‘entertainment’ that will be provided at the Democratic convention. Rattling off a list that includes the latest hip-hop hero, much pleasure is derived from pointing out that this truly indicates the “scope of generational change in the Democratic Party”. Oy. Kids are great, but since they can’t even be trusted with a beer in the backyard, I’m not so clear on how it’s good that great attention is being paid to their ‘feelings’ about this or that candidate or just how those feelings are wholly relevant to the grave issues currently bethumping Us. You don’t have to spend more than a few minutes in a theater-full of the blessed young as they watch their favorite new blockbuster to realize that next week or next month their feelings will have moved on and their memories will have ‘deleted’ this present totality of cool awesomeness just as totally as if it had taken place in some distant and irrelevant and useless ‘past’. It’s what kids do.

It’s more disturbing to ponder this and realize that the Dems have yet one more reason for fearing that they are perceived as ‘unmanly’ and ‘weak’. They are not only in thrall to the still-biting mastodons (mastodettes?) of Second-Wave feminist radical agitprop, but they are also desperately seeking the approval of children. And – thanks to that Amendment back in 1972 – these children can – you should again pardon the expression – ‘vote’. Gawd.

Of course, the level of pre-mature cognitive and emotional functioning proper to youth may well be the level of ‘citizen participation’ that the Dems are looking for. Elect in a wave of happy frenzy, and then forget ‘politics’ and go party or Facebook themselves or text-message about their favorite celebrity.

And just how long will We retain the Republic with a citizenry thus limited in its abilities and concerns? And surely both of those tyrannosaurs – the National Security State and the National Nanny State – seek precisely that level of participation. It is the moist-dream of any Beltway pol nowadays, is it not? Get elected by the voters and then have the voters depart for gooey realms of enjoyment while you are left in charge of the checkbook and the arms-locker, free to party and preventively invade, to pander and to pull in the PAC money – although never neglecting to display ‘sensitivity’. It’s the fateful tragedy of “Animal Farm” debauched by liberal doses of bathos.

But the election is an “emergency”, isn’t it? Yet again. No time to think or to get serious; no, just enough time to do what you’re told, say Yes or just keep your mouth shut, and leave the rest to Those Who Know. Ach, ja. That’s worked so well for societies in the past.

Those deep, groaning screams and roars from deep down within? Those aren’t the ‘traditional’ sounds of the hull starting to break up; that’s an ‘old’ story. No, they are the ‘fresh’, ‘unconventional’ sounds of ‘creative destruction’ – and if everybody would just please calm down and accept that, then before long this ship will enter a whole brave new world. Oh, yeah – no doubt about that.

On page 9 Mark Schmitt gushes about “Big-Picture Power”. In doing so, he reveals what a lot of Us didn’t know about Beltway thinking these past couple-four decades. Political power is not just about “who wins a fight” (referring, by the by, to an ‘election’ – who says the Dems aren’t good at ‘war’?) No, it’s also about “Who decides which issues are up for decision and which are not” and “deeper questions about ideology, the definition of problems, and shared assumptions about what is possible”. Ah.

But I gather that none of these matters have been considered with too much reference to relatively indispensable and unavoidable ‘realities’ that are ‘out there’ beyond the Beltway cocktail parties and conference rooms. Funny, that sounds like the same sort of approach that resulted in the current military debacle(s) in the East. Or it that thinking too much?

What Schmitt calls the Big-Picture approach is of itself not at all a bad thing. There has been wayyyyy too much short-term, short-sighted analysis inside the Beltway. Too much one-step-ahead tactical shrewdness and desperately not enough long-term strategic deliberation, replete with consequences, dynamic flow of act-and-response-to-the-act, and means available to initiate and sustain a proposed act.

But the Big-Picture approach hasn’t really been tried. It’s still too small as currently practiced. Thus, while the Republicans and neocons and the rest of the menagerie responsible for the wars in the East only looked at ‘Big’ results and precisely did not try to get a comprehensively ‘big picture’, so for decades the Dems have indulged their Identities in their obsession with the ‘Big’ results of a nation and a society utterly changed in their very fundaments in the twinkling of an eye by politically violent and rapid change unceasingly imposed, and with no thought as to consequences further on down the line, or to the interaction of large and constitutive factors in societal dynamics, or even to the impact of the whole thing on societal and cultural and even national stability.

The Bushist Imperium invaded Iraq. They were so sure of the ‘value’ of their plans and also of their quick success: Was there truth in the reasons for ‘war’? Not necessary because it’s all in a good cause. Was it established – as considered even in the time of Washington and Adams – whether ‘democracy’ is exportable? Not necessary, because we know so much more nowadays. Were there enough troops to get the job done? Not necessary, because the people there will do all the work once we’ve gotten rid of the bad government. Has it been considered what we will do if things don’t go as planned after the government has fallen? Nope. It will all work out because America has been sent there by God, and America is on a mission from God. The Blues Brothers as channeled by the Mayberry Machiavellis.

The Democrats embraced every dream and vision of the Advocacies: They were sure of the ‘value’ of ‘change’ and of the historical inevitability of what the Advocacies wanted to jump-start (thus not only making History but getting one-step ahead of It). Is it certain that gender and identity are more fundamental to societal and national stability than economic well-being for all the citizens? It’s oppressive even to ask the question. Is it certain that ‘female’ characteristics specifically exclusive to that gender exist? And is it certain that if they do exist, those characteristics are better for society and that the so-called male characteristics have been bad for the country? And is it wise to sidestep wide public deliberation and simply impose these initiatives under the not-quite-truthful guise of ‘emergencies’ and ‘crises’? And what happens if – even after all your coercion through legislation and media amplification of not-altogether-accurately reported ‘outrages’ – your many deep changes do not result in a quick and comprehensive societal acceptance of your visions; will you keep society and the citizenry in a state of distracted agitation for decades?

Alas, in Our modern American reality all of these questions merely prove that You just don’t get it, but once we have succeeded you will see that our new world is so much better, and richer.

So now the Republicans are trying to back away from what they have done even as they also try to double-down to recover some or any success from the intensifying situation in the Middle East – and now in the Central Asian region as well. (Even as the Israeli government threatens nuclear war “to send a diplomatic message”.)

And so now the Democrats are trying to ‘look beyond’ what they have been doing for decades in the hopes of lulling enough voters into accepting them as a Party competent to rule and capable of repairing the damage, while simultaneously indulging their ‘base’ in its now frenzied desire to double-down and take this last chance to sweep all opposition from the political table, even as all of those all-too-real realities that were not part of the Identity-story – overwhelming military competence, incomparable manufacturing and financial expertise, unbreakable economic dominance and an unshakeable currency, and ever-expanding national wealth and resources – start to come apart in mid-air. And as those even more immaterial but utterly indispensable realities reveal the extent of their decay : a citizenry individually and communally Grounded in its own maturity and in the rock-like foundations of Ideals worthy of virtuous (though never complete) adherence and free of the terrible distractions of economic insecurity , and united in the confidence of a common achievement and dedicated to a common Project.

And what can it mean that each Party has a ‘base’ that is actually a radical fringe? Try to imagine the figure geometrically: not a triangular pyramid with a wide base at its bottom, not a rectangle or a square resting on a side large enough to support the weight of the rest of the structure above it, but rather … what? An inverted triangle, resting on its point – hugely unstable. A structure suspended in mid-air, with its largest element at one end of it? Impossible, for how does it support itself up there in the air? But perhaps ‘geometric’ thoughts were considered too ‘masculine’ or too ‘male’ for elite Beltway planning. Sure as hell, the pyramid on the dollar-bill (now worth some few cents) with that symbolic but hardly un-real ‘eye’ seeing all at its tip … sure as hell that might have given them pause. But elites don’t carry such small denominations. And radicals don’t care for economic realities. But there We are again.

So, Schmitt continues, politics is all about “how to put new issues on the agenda and then how to challenge prevailing ideologies and assumptions”. Ummmmmm – not primarily, no. You go to sea in a ship and your first responsibility as captain isn’t to “challenge” prevailing assumptions about navigation, buoyancy and the operational characteristics and dynamics of large vessels afloat in a storm, and to tie up the entire crew and command staff in such activity. Maybe if you’re in an experimental vessel specifically designed to ‘push the envelope’, but not a liner with – oh say - a couple-three hundred million passengers. And in crowded shipping lanes where equally large or larger vessels are also making their way according to their own illuminations.

You’ve got to work your best to keep this baby on a steady keel and on her way. Maybe a little time when things are quiet you can pull everybody into your sea cabin and push some thoughts around, but beyond that – well, if you can’t live with that maybe you really shouldn’t be in the command-at-sea business and ought to pursue some other path to personal excellence. Maybe become a faculty member at Hahvahd or Duke, or run a large newspaper or TV station. Some line where the quality of life of hundreds of millions isn’t going to go down the tubes if your excited illuminations aren’t quite on the mark. Or the physical lives of untold numbers aren’t literally snuffed if you start running into stuff – or, like – you start invading other ships. Geez, this isn’t rocket science. Or is that image too ‘male’?

Schmitt rises (descends?) almost to the level of self-parody: referring to the achievements and exertions of the “progressive” (he never uses the word ‘liberal’) world in the past ten years “has involved understanding the limits of the old approach”. By this he means that “instead of hoping to win elections and lobbying for good bills and against bad ones, progressive organizations are finally becoming more conscious about [sic] setting the agenda and fighting for a worldview”. Oy. Oy gevalt. Oy and frakking frak.

Does it carry you back – to talk about legislators “lobbying for good bills and against bad ones”? I mean, it still doesn’t refer to deliberating about whether a bill really is ‘good’ for the common weal or not, but at least “the old approach” had legislators actually trying to think things through and do the job they were dadblasted elected for. And “fighting for a worldview”?!! Fighting against whom, pray? Other Americans? Turning the entire American societal and constitutional stage into the bar scene from “Star Wars”? Or – worse and ironically so - into a bar brawl scene from one of those disreputable and quintessentially ‘male’ Western movies (oppressive, offensive, macho) against which the Revolutions have deployed themselves for forty long and biblical years?

Well, while everybody has been fighting or trying to avoid the fighting down on the saloon deck – captain and command staff included – the good ship of state seems to have headed into an ice-field, run out of fuel, and placed itself on a collision course with half-a-hundred other vessels. Though perhaps at the Naval Academy these days such a situation would not be allowed to reflect on the ‘competence’ of an aspiring admiral-to-be? It makes the denizens of an ‘American Pie’ movie look like characters out of ancient Greek theatre. Such enlightenment. Such progress. Thus We stagger on.

And for a “worldview”. We’d better get Ourselves a clear-eyed assessment of the ‘world’ pretty damned quick. “Worldviews” are phantasmagorical creatures, on the order of a unicorn. We are facing very real horses, here – and they kick very real kicks. And We have lost the reins. And it’s a mountainous, twisty road. And let me not repeat myself.

And on page 24 Rick Perlstein does his level best to twist and squash the corpse of FDR-era history into the casket currently (and ‘progressively’) fashioned for it. His take is that “presidents have to move quickly to enact progressive reforms before the windows of opportunity close forever.” He uses the examples of FDR and LBJ. His logic leads him sorta to this: if Presidents who have enacted great societal changes have only been able to do so under the pressure of great events, then agitating up enough great pressure will be necessary to get one’s own ‘great event’ enacted.

Such logic. And from a college-man. FDR was faced with the pressure of great events and a great crisis – but he didn’t make the crisis himself. Nobody purposely made it. Yes, Wall Street greed and government hesitation certainly led to the Great Depression, but that isn’t to say that the best way to ensure ‘change’ – progressive or otherwise – is to go and purposely create such huge pressures. As one of the alien characters, Quark, on ‘Deep Space Nine’ incredulously exclaimed of humans when he traveled back in time to America of 1947 and found out about the atomic bomb: “they irradiated their own planet??!!” Fire departments shouldn’t set off huge chemical explosions downtown just to demonstrate that they need a new budget to include chemical-explosion equipment. (We pass over as not completely relevant to the present subject the Israeli government ‘s threatening to start a nuclear war in the Middle East in order to let folks know that they’re unhappy with present arrangements, and as an earnest of their willingness to have their demands met in a conference of some sort.)

Ditto LBJ, who as the article acknowledges, in that Glorious '65 was able to surf a wave created by the assassination of JFK, and successfully rammed through the final success-elements of the Union’s victory in the Civil War. Surely it borders on the essence of imbecility to purposely recreate such a wave of “national emergency”. And haven’t We been through enough nation-wide “emergencies” and “crises” in the past decades? The drug ‘war’, abduction crises, assorted sexual ‘emergencies’, and then suddenly, while all the passengers and crew and command staff were busy with those, somehow nobody was on the bridge to notice 9-11 coming straight at Us, although there was clear notice well in advance. This script is getting repetitive; this ‘story’ needs to be reworked. Even the most empty suit in Hollywood could tell Us that. At this rate, “America” is going to become a movie with no ‘hero’. And that never sells.

But also: Perlstein says out loud what hasn’t really been allowed to see the light of day for decades. “During the span of just a few weeks in the summer of 1965, Johnson flew to Independence, Missouri [home of Harry Truman, HST] to sign Medicare – the reform JFK had run on in 1960 – and to Washington to sign the Voting Rights Act.” It was a Glorious summer indeed, the culmination of a struggle that not only extended back into and beyond the Civil War, but also in then-recent American experience to the awesome vision and exertions of Martin Luther King and his associates – white as well as black, male and female together – grounded both in scripture and the best ideals of a common American history.

And then, suddenly: “Five days later, on Aug. 11, the Watts Riots brought down the curtain on the liberal hour. After that he couldn’t even get Congress to approve $60 million for rodent control in the slums.”

It has not been sufficiently appreciated, how much that ‘liberal hour’ (that classic Democratic liberalism, to great extent) was cut short, undercut, by the riots in Watts, brought into every American home in color and often live. This is not to say that ‘the negoes’ themselves were responsible for the riots; nor is it the purpose here to ascribe blame. But the fact remains: before ‘racism’ ever had a chance to rear its head in response to the Glorious ’65, the actions in Watts so awesomely destroyed a Moment in American history, and through the riots a great event’s ‘wave’ of pressure, naturally generated, dissolved into a ripple.

In response to which, as can be seen just beneath the surface of this article, the Democrats were profoundly baffled as a political force, and in their weakness, allowed themselves to be seduced by radical elements that felt it only right and proper to ‘create’ such pressures again by any means necessary. And the Dems let themselves be drawn along by it. And as the shock of Watts was soon joined by the shock of increasing failure in Vietnam, the Democrats embraced a ‘liberalism’ that was now actually a radicalism in content but even more so in method, a radicalism impatient and even dismissive of a democratic politics and of the capacity of The People to deliberate and choose well for the country. And then other groups – that Second Wave of feminism first among them – quickly sought to grasp its opportunity, to make its own Moment, and enforce its own huge and untested visions onto the country and The People, by whatever means necessary. And other groups followed.

And here We are. If the champagne flutes are starting to tip in the first-class saloon, then you can be sure that the water is rising in the bunkrooms of third-class and steerage. Are issues of race or of gender more important, asks the ship’s newspaper?

I think that such questions aren’t really in touch with a certain monstrous reality. They ‘just don’t get it’.

Perhaps they never will.

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