Wednesday, November 05, 2008

US, MORONS AND POLITICS

Alternet has an article by George Monbiot entitled ‘The Triumph of Ignorance: How Morons Succeed in U.S. Politics’ (http://www.alternet.org/story/105447/ ).

He asks an interesting and very relevant – indeed an urgent – question.

And answers it. Partially.

But only partially.

How does a country with the world’s best universities, able to attract the world’s finest minds, dominant in scientific discoveries and medicine, wealthy and powerful, yet hold “learning” to be a “grave political disadvantage”?

The first thing that comes to me is that this ‘Greatest’ trope is almost history now (think the ‘New World’, the ‘frontier’, and the ‘Charleston’). Our universities charge the price of a nice house to teach the young that ‘facts don’t matter’; Our healthcare and life-expectancy is ‘second world’ and heading south; Our ‘wealth’ is totally borrowed now and Our ‘power’ is fueled by Pentagon funds borrowed from Our potential rivals and perhaps enemies., most of which cash is currently tied up in losing wars and unusable – and in some cases unworkable – weapons. So the journalistic and literary trope of the ‘Greatest’ nation can no longer constitute – you should pardon the expression – ‘business as usual’.

If Bush indeed hung the painting of Calvin Coolidge in the symbolic position in the Oval Office or thereabouts, then in addition to all of his other failures, he can add that the business of the United States is no longer ‘business’ but ‘borrowing’. ‘Silent Cal’ could do more for the country as a ghost than he ever did as President: he can haunt Bush. As perhaps the cousins Roosevelt might render yet still another service to the nation by haunting the ‘malefactors of great wealth’ and – distasteful as it might be to a professional politician – the pols who loved them.

I am writing this on Election Day afternoon, and I would like to think that by tomorrow at this time more than a few career Hillsters and Beltway bigshots may lament in the accents of the soon-to-be-undone Cardinal Wolsey: had I served The People half as well as I served the wealthy, I should not be in so desolate a position this day. Forsooth. For-frakkin-sooth.

Monbiot’s insights display the same knowingness combined with a curiously strategic myopia that have become a staple of the day, such as John Dean’s insider-tinged, pandering assurances that ‘it’s all the Republicans’ fault’. Reagan – that winsome but treacherous charmer – exemplified the anti-intellectual strain when he sophomorically ‘scored’ against Jimmy Carter in a debate for the 1980 election: as Carter tried to answer a question using some big words and complicated thinking, Reagan smiled that MGM smile and said “There you go again”. There you go again – thinking … ya dope.

I doubt Reagan had read Richard Hofstadter on ‘anti-intellectualism in American life and history’. But no doubt somebody in his organization had. And Reagan had intuitively sniffed the scent of anti-intellectualism in the air at least since the early ‘70s, and perhaps as early as his gubernatorial stint in California. Somehow it was in the air again. Maybe Jack Kennedy’s image as a ‘doer’ and not a ‘thinker’ had something to do with it; no doubt Carter’s inability to get anything accomplished (a failure as attributable to Tip O’Neill as to Carter) made ‘thinkers’ seem as ridiculously ineffective as pencils trying to jack up a pickup truck.

The Founders – but of course – are brought forth to remind Us that it wasn’t always like this. They were “some of the greatest thinkers of their age” and they weren’t afraid to show it. But then, they had done enough thinking to wonder if ‘people’ in general could ever really be trusted to administer weighty affairs, or – not quite the same thing – if ‘people’ could ever be trusted to function as The People.

That was always a question and with intelligence and maturity seeming to be the results of a crapshoot in Nature’s distribution of gifts, the Founding gentlefolk decided that discretion was the better part of valor, choosing not a ‘heroic’ popular-democracy, but rather a republic, prudently provided with firewalls and watertight doors not simply to keep steerage out of the first-class saloon but off the bridge as well, so as to keep steerage from steering the Ship of State onto the rocks of Utopia. But in the event, We must ruefully note, the tasteful and white-toothed professionals in first-class and on the bridge did the Big Bad Thing themselves, though not in pursuit of Utopia but in pushing her at high speed into the fogbound berg-fields of Greed.

“How did the project [that the Founders] launched degenerate into George W. Bush and Sarah Palin?” Good for him that he uses the vivid and vital verb ‘degenerate’, which also serves as an adjective to describe the condition of Our politics these days (did anybody think that by raising up the black sheep of ‘sex offenders’ and then chasing them out of the village … that somehow thereby the village cleansed itself of its degeneracy? … that’s not how civilized peoples think – which brings Us back to the point of the article).

Suddenly and with an edifying candor he answers the question forthwith: “On one level, this is easy to answer: Ignorant politicians are elected by ignorant people.” Au point! The ferris wheel has run amok because the struts weren’t up to their task.

“How did so many U.S. citizens become so dumb and so suspicious of intelligence?” But then he plays it safe. He uses the arguments in a recent book – somebody else’s book. And this somebody – one Susan Jacoby – “shows that the degradation of U.S. politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies”. True enough, and not a bad way to get into the ‘work’ of the session.
But Jacoby – newly empowered – is not a free-range investigator; and her ‘usual suspects’ are the usual suspects of the Left (which is no longer ‘liberal’ by any stretch). “Religion – in particular fundamentalist religion – makes you stupid.” Thus Monbiot channeling Jacoby. But is there is any witlessness greater than considering oneself right and very clever for assuming that there is no Vertical dimension to existence? That there is no Beyond?

Certainly, incompetence and treachery can manipulate the human need – and the natural capacity – for sensing and touching the Beyond. The Church-as-It is a splendid Catholic image for that aspect of religion – whether enforced by its erstwhile representatives or raised up by its adherents – which does not put them in touch with the Vertical and the Beyond, but simply enmeshes prelate as well as believer in the miasm of a purely Horizontal, mono-dimensional existence. Which is actually a non-, or at best a partial-existence. Which is complicated by the fact that human beings do need a certain amount of visible, organized (to some extent), reliably soul-sustaining and soul-affirming Material reality in order to sustain their access to Spiritual reality, within themselves and … Beyond themselves.

Those are religious questions. They don’t make you stupid, asking them, although they may baffle you in trying to answer them. But there are the recorded efforts of those who have been working on the matter, and those records go back a long long time.

The Fundamentalist approach to things religious and spiritual is surely skewed and deeply bereft and its adherents are surely skewed and deeply bereft. But the Fundamentalist approach hardly represents the best that religion has to offer.

But if you’re writing for a certain type of audience, and are looking to keep your creds and your meal ticket, then preaching to the choir is a pretty easy way to keep everything flowing smoothly.

Darwinism comes in for it as a possibly valid justification for “anti-rationalism” once upon a time in the West. After all – though the connection is a bit more complicated – Herbert Spencer soon took Darwin’s thoughts and applied them to society: his ‘theory’, his ‘philosophy’ is that it’s all a matter of the “survival of the fittest”. And this is not a nice thing. Indeed, it is such a Republican thing – I can almost feel the inference pulsating beneath the text. But while the Gordon Gekko version of shiny but swinish debasement saw its renascence in the Reagan era, it saw its apotheosis in the Clinton era, when ‘bipartisanship’ was a code that assured all the Gekkos that no regulators would be keeping an eye.

And here We are.

And one could hardly be faulted for the conceptual observation that abortion – certainly in cases not involving the rape or actual life of the mother – is pretty much a Social-Darwinian gambit from the get-go. The ‘fittest’ in that zero-sum encounter get to survive; the ‘unfit’ don’t. How much more ‘Republican’ can one get? The Left might want to spend less time on ‘zero tolerance’ and more on ‘zero sum’. If “laissez faire economics” is a Social-Darwinian affliction presently debasing Us as a polity, a culture, a society, and a community, then what is to be said about the literal life-or-death ‘economics’ of abortion?

I’d said in an earlier Post that the Democrats started behaving like Republicans in the time of Tip O’Neill and the Democrat-invented PACs. But the case could well be made that they started acting like Republicans when they embraced the Social-Darwinism of abortion. Dealing death to the weak is ‘liberal’?

But you’re not going to get those insights or connections from the likes of Jacoby.

And Monbiot goes on to say that the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, supported slavery (as did a lot of other institutions back in the day, not excepting the Supreme Court). He notes that “in order to stave off desegregation it supported the establishment of large numbers of “Christian schools and universities”. That would certainly be in their playbook. It would also be in their playbook – and I hold no brief for fundamentalism or Southern Baptistry – to try to shield its adherents from the effects of the ‘second’ 1960s, the Sixties that followed early July of 1965 when the ‘first’ 1960s came to a crashing halt and something else again asserted itself as ‘liberal’ and ‘enlightened’ and – shades of Lenin – ‘politically correct’.

It is indeed frightening that so many people, as he notes, who are expected to discharge the duties of Peopling this Republic and its government believe that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time. And I’ve said in numerous Posts that the effects of Fundamentalist Ascendancy in the military, especially in its chaplaincies and its general officer ranks, has been nothing but toxic to the moral and spiritual fiber of the Services (not everyone who goes to a command prayer breakfast and calls out “Lord, Lord!’ shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven).

But as I’ve also said, the premeditated and deliberate assault on both religious belief and a democratic politics by the Revolutions of the Identities, wielding deconstructionist Theory alloyed with a certain reductionist pragmatism that has for 150 years been a hallmark of American philosophy, in the service of ‘creatively destroying’ American tradition and any sense of American commonality and community, created a gaping vacuum in the center that sucked Fundamentalism in from the margins of American life and culture. And it’s still going on today. And its consequences, burned into the national consciousness over the course of decades, will remain for a long time.

As if the manipulative undertow of the National Security State and consumerism’s ceaseless advertising weren’t dangerous enough, there then came the borrowed-from-communism revolutionary politics of the ‘second’ 1960s, which then evoked their mirror-image in the rabid Fundamentalism of the American backwoods. And the same ‘limits’ and ‘virtues’ hooted and hounded away by deconstructionism then also ceased to shape or contain the greed and rapacity of Big Wealth, and it metastasized into the Beltway from Wall Street. And many called it ‘good’.

Oy.

Monbiot adds that “perhaps the most potent reason why intellectuals struggle in elections is that intellectualism has been equated with subversion”. Given the number of academics and ‘public intellectuals’ who embraced ‘radical politics’ as just good ole’ ‘liberalism’ in a new rebirth of liberation, is it a mistaken equation?

It’s more accurate to call it ‘Progressivism’, as has been the tactic for the past couple of years, since the utter inutility of ‘liberal’ as a campaign moniker, but American Progressivism called for ‘elites’ to administer the government for the good of the masses very much as Lenin’s ‘vanguard elites’ were to do in Russia. We are now bethump’t by elites, ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’, but in either case holding themselves above ‘the masses’ (i.e. We the People) and in many cases making far too much money for the ‘services’ rendered to Us.

This is ‘progress’? Are We better off than We were eight years ago? Sixteen years ago? Fifty years ago?

‘Political correctness’ was precisely designed so that citizens would not think, would not dare to speak their thoughts out loud – unless they first made sure that their thoughts were ‘correct’ and ‘appropriate’. Did anybody think that the squelching of critical thought and free expression and open debate would work ‘in a good cause’ any better than it did for the Soviet state in Lenin’s ‘bad’ cause?

And here We are.

By tomorrow – God willing – We should know who the next President will be. Nor – as Glenn Greenwald noted yesterday on Salon – will he be ‘Our’ commander-in-chief. He will be the person We have engaged to – how does it go? – see that the laws be faithfully executed. That’s what the job description is. For the rest, We’ll all have to take Our chances with Life and History just like everyone else.

And at this point in Our national journey, that’s going to take a lot of work. And courage. And fortitude. And seriousness. And patience. And Faith. And Charity.

Call room service – have them get the virtues out of the cellar. And dust’em off.

And as Irving Berlin might say, We had our breakfast in bed before, but We won’t have it there anymore.

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