THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson



 

Cry, the Beloved Country

 

How many Americans, after watching the presidential "debate" on Sunday, October 9, felt an urgent need to take a shower? For that matter, how many wish they could shake off the entire 2016 presidential campaign as if it were a bad, bad dream? To some degree, we may have felt this way before, but any attempt to equate the sheer depravity of this election cycle with any of its historical predecessors should be dismissed as so much partisan prattle. The unpleasant truth is that we have never witnessed anything like it.

Perhaps we should be grateful to the Republican nominee for so effectively removing the scales from our eyes. We had become accustomed, every four years, to a parade of candidates telling us how wonderful we are. "The American people" are thoroughly generous, brave, patriotic, honest, dependable and morally upright. In a word, exceptional. We have been reminded time and again that crime and poverty exist only on the fringes of society, and therefore can be dealt with on the fringes of politics. Occasionally a candidate strays from the script and erroneously describes some of our fellow citizens (not us!) as moochers, cheats or otherwise unworthy of the blessings of capitalism and democracy. But these are aberrations in the prescribed rhetoric of heroic idealism. Successful presidential candidates invariably win because they remind voters of how special America is, how vital its place in the world, and how uniquely qualified we Americans are to carry the torch of freedom into the next generation.

Not this time. Ronald Reagan's shining city on a hill has descended in a mere three decades (despite his alleged greatness as President) into a hellscape of violence and destruction. The threat of imminent death awaits us around every corner. The borders are being overrun by illegal immigrants, and terrorists are infiltrating every neighborhood in the land, as our economy crumbles and the nation slides inexorably into ruin. Thanks be to the new Jeremiah, for reminding us daily that the American public is not the glorious assemblage of angels we believed ourselves to be, but a reflection of the vacuous and debauched candidate that he himself sees in the mirror every morning.

We would owe an even greater debt of gratitude to any candidate who could admit in public that the real America lies somewhere in between the glistening, golden Camelot of Excalibur and the debased, desert savagery of Mad Max. Our country has never been paradise but neither has it ever been a thoroughly amoral, Hobbesian free-for-all, either. Adult human beings of sound mind have no trouble internalizing the concept that human nature can be both ugly and beautiful, and that the conflicts between our lesser and better selves reside in each and every one of us. The duality in our natures is not something to be papered over but acknowledged in all the fullness of our experience. Without such self-awareness, there is no happiness.

So why is it, then, that our politics are so two-dimensional? Why must everything be bifurcated into triumph or tragedy, hero or knave, patriot or coward? Why in our private lives is it so easy to see both the dark underside and the silver lining of everything, and to recognize that the even the most stalwart among us have feet of clay and that even the most blameworthy possess glimmers of grace — but that in casting our votes we insist on all or nothing? There may be perfectly reasonable explanations why we are so susceptible to demagoguery and lies, and so selective in our criticism. Chief among these reasons is probably just the way our brains happened to evolve: not to discern the truth but to survive in a hostile wilderness. Well, we certainly do not dwell in an earthly Eden, but neither does the vast majority of contemporary humanity face life with the level of uncertainty and ignorance that plagued our forebears. We have shown ourselves capable of knowing better, and of being better.

The American political misfortune of the moment may have something to do with the remoteness of actual misfortune of the kind experienced by so many of our fellow creatures. To use a conveniently horrid example, while candidates blithely debate what, if anything, to do about Syria and its millions of displaced persons, the residents of that disintegrated country are living through an inferno of violence and destruction to a degree that no native-born American has had to bear since the Civil War, if even then. No one at home has a living memory of such unrelenting slaughter, nor even their parents or grandparents. Every American war fought since the late 19th century, including both world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and two Iraq wars, we have waged from abroad. Apart from the few of us who have travelled abroad as soldiers or journalists or aid workers, we haven't the slightest idea what real suffering actually looks like, what real loss of liberty actually feels like. Our vapid popular culture is proof of a nation that has entirely lost perspective. For all of the problems that we face, for all of our countrymen who have been left out of the dream, we and our candidates behave exactly like the spoiled children we are.

"Votez Escroc, Pas Facho"

Vote for the Crook, Not the Fascist
Seeing the light, over there

If this seems like so much rhetoric, consider the radically different electoral experience of a nation with a more recent memory of dictatorship and war.

In the French presidential election of 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the avowedly racist National Front, shocked the nation by winning second place in the first round of voting. This put him in a run-off against Jacques Chirac, a veteran conservative who was then under investigation for corruption. In a crowded field, neither candidate managed to reach 20 percent of the vote, which left the outcome of the final round very much in doubt. Voters were faced with a miserable choice: an unapologetic Nazi sympathizer and Holocaust denier, or a venal career politician widely believed to have enriched himself at the taxpayers' expense.

In the following weeks, a startling banner began turning up at political rallies: "Vote for the crook, not the fascist." It was obvious to most voters that the National Front had to be stopped at all costs, even if that cost was electing a deeply unpopular and untrusted candidate to the most powerful office in the land, and to one of the two most important leadership positions in Europe. In the end, Chirac won the run-off with an astounding 82 percent of the vote. Le Pen barely exceeded his total in the first round, much to the relief of those both in France and around the world who feared that Le Pen had tapped into an unfathomed wellspring of reactionary support. For the moment, France came to its senses.

Consider this outcome again: when faced with a choice between a corrupt, self-serving crook and a self-proclaimed white supremacist, France overwhelmingly chose the crook. One can reasonably assume that the memory of World War II and the Nazi occupation was still fresh in the minds of many living French voters, and certainly not lost on the vast majority of their children and grandchildren.

Would that we could say the same about the American electorate, tens of million of whom apparently have no qualms about voting for a profoundly uninformed man of dubious accomplishment and shameful character. To call the Republican nominee for president a fascist is an insult to fascism, as it ascribes to the man a depth of knowledge and a devotion to principle that he is clearly lacking. He may puff his chest and jut his chin like Mussolini, but the Italian dictator, despite the warped lessons he drew from his study of history, was a man of letters compared to the real estate tycoon who has reputedly never read a book from cover to cover, including the ones he is purported to have written.

One is compelled to ask of one's fellow citizens, in this moment of national crisis, to resist, resist, resist. But what exactly is the individual to resist? The current situation is the culmination of many forces that have been at play in American society for a very long time, a perfect storm of political malfeasance, journalistic surrender, general ignorance and cultural desecration. The fetid cesspool that constitutes much of the Internet is certainly not helping, either. But to throw our hands up in despair is a denial that each of us is both a perpetrator and a victim: as consumers of junk news and mindless entertainment, internet porn and conspiracy theories, we are active participants in our own demise. As the old comic strip used to say, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

If all of this makes you feel dirty, get used to it. No matter the outcome of this election, that feeling will not go away because its ingredients have been fermenting for a long time. Consider this bizarre anomaly: in the summer of 2015, after the mass shooting by a white supremacist in a black church in Charleston, pickup trucks in rural New York started proudly displaying the stars and bars. That's right: in New York State, the heartland of the detested Yanks, quite a few upstate residents saw no irony whatsoever in waving the flag of the rebel army, even as that flag was being taken down from the grounds of the South Carolina state house. In American politics, race identity has nearly always beaten class identity for the people's loyalty. The legitimization of such meanness by a major party candidate, and the willingness of so many in that party to acquiesce in this evil, will leave its mark for a very long time.

We are just going to have to start pushing the rock of sanity and decency back uphill all over again. It's filthy work, but what kind of a country will we have if we don't try?

October 10, 2016

 

[Apologies to Alan Paton for borrowing the title of his beautiful novel of South Africa, a country whose harrowing history make all the troubles of contemporary America seem like the proverbial bed of roses.]

 




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