“Humanity, you never had it to begin with,” a line from the poem Those Sons of Bitches, included in poet Charles Bukowski’s Mockingbird Wish Me Luck, has never seemed so salient as it does today, since its publication nearly fifty years ago.
Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” another nugget often unearthed these days, has always seemed close to the mark but still a little off. It’s not so much that history repeats itself one would think, but that humans are simply human, and that while they possess the capacity for progress and civilization, they never fully shed the traits that make them periodically susceptible to self-destruction and folly.
Wishful thinking, purposeful misdirection, a propensity for false nostalgia, a deepening befuddlement, helped along by those whose agenda is precisely such befuddlement, are not easily transcended it turns out.
You can lead an American to objective facts, reliable information, genuine knowledge and expertise, but you can’t make them take a sip. Indeed, these days, it is more likely than not their eyes would fail to recognize such treasures when placed directly in front of their face. The gold and the pyrite not only look the same, they share a similar value.
What else would one call this state of affairs but an approaching darkness? What else could it portend but even more darkness?
Am I just another elite, as a segment of my fellow citizens these days might be quick to accuse me of being? Well, my beginnings were humble enough, my current status little better. But I do have an addiction to reading, an abiding curiosity, a healthy skepticism, a wariness of being played, and contempt for those who would attempt to play me.
A fancy education isn’t required in order to be this kind of “elite.” Only a determination to be informed and educated. In fact, one arguably can learn as much, if not more about the human experience, though works of fiction and essays than from any data set.
Americans have taken a lot for granted. Some of the things some of them have taken for granted were bad things: white majoritarianism, omnipresent Christianity, the latter incorporating numerous taboos and irrational convictions pertaining to sexuality.
The post-war era, even with the Cold War, even with Vietnam, even with turmoil in many places across the globe, never anyone’s idea of tranquility, has at least for many in the West been a golden era of relative peace, prosperity and demonstrable progress.
But many contributing factors and institutions that have made such an era possible, are methodically being chipped away, their final dismantling the goal of an ideologically purist, extremist right, whose power for various systemic reasons, far exceeds its numbers and its support: the upward pressure on wages and the pension system that organized labor provided in furtherance of a broad American middle class; the social safety net that mitigated the inevitable hardships of aging and macroeconomic downturns; a public education system that created a broadly educated, basically competent, skilled and informed citizenry; acknowledgement of the simple concept of a public good.
Perhaps nothing has been so deleterious for the nation’s health and well being than the embrace on the American right, and in its principal vehicle the Republican Party, of the pseudo-philosophies and fanciful, eccentric economics and mythologies of Ayn Rand.
Rightly viewed as a kook in her own time, the Russian born Rand’s contempt for the Bolsheviks metastasized into something irrational if not demented. This mania took the form of her philosophy of unrestrained greed, the sanctification of unrestrained self-interest, the banal and evil classing of human beings as makers or takers, the valuable and the burdensome.
The counterpart of this neo-feudalist worldview, is that the mitigating of power and greed, the tempering of accumulated wealth and power, the including of compassion, equality and the notion of a shared and common good as governing principles should themselves be viewed as synonymous with evil.
Among the impacts of this upside down ethos on our present society are the reverence in conservative quarters for corporate big footing, and the broad dismissal of conventional morality in business and politics as mere hindrance to the necessary winning edge. Moral precepts, along with reality itself are defined by those who market best.
One can’t help but read the following observations from revered historical figures, and in light of our current period of defanged, disempowered government, and corporate suzerainty, our Ayn Rand informed Republican power holders, view the priorities enunciated and the values asserted therein as anything more than fondly quaint.
“I sincerely believe, with you, that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies. Crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.” -Thomas Jefferson
In my present position I could scarcely be justified were I to omit raising a warning voice against this approach of returning despotism. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government. -Abraham Lincoln
Centralization has already come in business. If this irresponsible outside power is to be controlled in the interest of the general public, it can be controlled in only one way–by giving adequate power of control to the one sovereignty capable of exercising such power–the National Government. -Theodore Roosevelt
Where Jefferson had feared the encroachment of political power on the lives of individuals, Wilson knew that the new power was financial. He saw, in the [concentration of wealth in the hands of a few], the despot of the twentieth century on whom great masses of individuals relied for their safety and their livelihood, and whose irresponsibility and greed (if not controlled) would reduce them to starvation and penury….” -Franklin Roosevelt
Those who promote life without the safety net, and the regulatory infrastructure as a return to a paradisiacal yesteryear, either are utterly unacquainted with the hardships and brutalities of earlier eras, or worse, have chosen to replace or look away from such historical realities in favor of a fanciful, ideologically convenient gloss of false nostalgia. There are those who accept these hardships, inequalities and unaddressed barbarities as a form of purity, a rough justice nature supposedly intends, and humans oughtn’t attempt to mitigate.
And really, what chance do simple facts, historical verities, objective truths and humane values retain against a powerful machinery of propaganda, against the Orwellian doublespeak practiced so effortlessly, shamelessly, and confidently by the incoming president, his minions, and his political party?
Not as much of one as we’d like to believe I think. Given that one of the strongest bulwarks against this Orwellianism, normally would be the fourth estate, the current health and effectiveness of America’s principal media doesn’t inspire optimism.
It is not the election of Donald Trump per se, and what it portends, that is evidence we have fallen over the cliff, but the very possibility of his election, the manifestation of an environment that would even make it possible. That alone put us past the tipping point.
But it isn’t just America. Another winner of the last world war, Russia, after the fall of communist authoritarianism, enjoyed a brief interlude of democracy in the Nineties, yet has slowly, but surely, guided by Mr. Putin, retreated into neo-fascist authoritarianism.
Throughout Europe the old nationalisms, the old prejudices, the old myths suddenly are new again. The instabilities, the extremities, the conflicts, the destruction, the displacement, the misery and the brutality are now too far away for anyone to fear now.
The structures and the institutions for so long keeping the modern, industrialized world relatively stable and relatively peaceful, relatively free and relatively democratic, NATO, The European Union, The United Nations, and the social welfare state, suddenly are under siege, described by some as antiquated and in the way.
So indeed history repeats itself. Or at the least, approximates itself. Another cycle of human self-destruction and misery on the cusp, humans once again helpless to restrain themselves.
Does this mean that for the majority of Americans who either didn’t vote for Trump, or do not support this manifestly extreme and absolutist Republican Party, there exists no possibility for correction, a restoration of progress? I hope not. While the stakes involved have been evident to those who cared to acknowledge them for quite a while, they are stark now.
The Orwellians have won. Whether they reign is another question, and up to all the rest of us.