Writing in the latest edition of The Atlantic about the libertarian Senator from Arizona, Jeff Flake, McKay Coppins writes these words about Flake’s “take” on the current political climate in Washington:
After a decade and a half in Congress, he has come to believe that the defining story of his time in Washington is one of good will gutted and cynicism weaponized, culminating with the election of Donald Trump. (The Atlantic, September 2017, p. 20)
Flake’s diagnosis, however, is more a description of symptoms, and not a diagnosis of root causes.
Politicians, as “leaders” in society, are fixated on the manipulation of superficial data, for the exclusive purpose of putting a “good light” on themselves. When the exercise of power is reduced to the manipulation of anything and everything to pour make-up over cancerous tumours, for one of two purposes, either to kick the issue down the road or generate opinion polls that sustain the politician’s electability, responsibility (by those leaders) has become a casualty of the political process.
At the heart of the American political biography is a revolution against what some saw as the abuse of power by the British monarchy. Bloodshed, muskets, cannons and “military sacrifice” are the ingredients of the nation’s birthing process. If “no taxation without representation” was the cry of the revolution, millions of American voters are in precisely the same structural situation, although the details are modified. Telling the British, “No” by defeating them in military campaigns, and then elevating those military generals to the status of heroes is imprinted into the national DNA.
There is, unfortunately, a singular, and by definition, immature, adolescent and distorted perception within such a heroic military source of power. The perception says that there must be two opponents in every situation, requiring competitive strategy and tactics from both, with an ultimate winner and loser from every fight. The state, as the perpetual and given “side” is then opposed by various forces from outside. And at the heart of the archetype, the state continues to be the enemy for millions, both then and today. In more moderate language, and with a dulcet larynx, Ronald Reagan uttered these words: “…. government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem. It isn't so much that liberals are ignorant, it's just that they know so much that isn't so.”
The historic insistence on only two political parties, linked by an umbilical cord to fiscal management, military idolatry, “star” heroism, a culture of corporate power (imitating the military model) and a lethal competitive engine….these are some of the underlying and pulsating forces that have to be addressed, if the current crisis is to be leavened. And they are all a consequence of inordinate national hubris, founded on a neurotic and self-defeating need to prove one’s self, including the national self.
And let’s not ignore these templates as they have been laid over the issues of race and religion. If the world can be, and is, open to division into two halves, two sides, right and wrong, (eliminating all nuances between the extremes) and the culture refuses to acknowledge the existence and the defects of this exaggerated Manicheanism, then a national trap has been set, and re-set, and re-set over and over again for more than 200 years. Christianity, whether practiced by Puritans, Roman Catholics or other “mainline” churches, when articulated as an encyclopaedia of absolutes, is the author of its own demise. By imposing an infantile and untrue construct on nature and natural law, and by submitting to the dictates of such a construct, and then imputing such a construct to a deity, and then worshipping a distortion that “we have the truth and the right religion,” the nation has committed the carnal mis-step of national, religious, economic and political hubris.
It does not matter whether we re-visit the issue of racial inequality, gender inequality, fiscal inequality, or even political inequality, the root of all American debates is shoved into a headline, like the one uttered by George W. Bush, ‘either you are ‘for us’ or you are ‘against us’. A Supreme Court that has to ‘rule’ on which of the petitioner or the defendant is in ascendancy at the moment, confirms the over-all, undergirding structure of the cultural foundation. The movement of political ‘winds’ in favour of or opposed to, for example, going to war or not, of therapeutic abortion/murder, the right to vote/literacy test, access to health care/nanny state, the threat/hoax of global warming and climate change, left to the personal vagaries of the size of the cash vault of the propagandists, even when the research community provides the competing evidence from both sides, is still a cultural in which the “truth” is a primary casualty in the national drama of “war”.
And it is a “war” of independence, re-enacted each time another national debate is held. Engraved into the constitution, for example, is the “right of free speech” to take one operable social, political and cultural application. The fact that too many Americans consider this right to be and to advocate for a fundamental “absolute” divides people on every issue…including the right to bear arms, the right to kill those engaged in providing therapeutic abortion, the right to ban refugees, immigrants, the construction of a “cultural war” between east and west, between Islam and Christianity, between “Coke and Pepsi.” All attempts to impose limits on free speech clash dramatically and openly with statements like “we abhor all hatred and bigotry”….they are mutually exclusive and the political discussion and debate never comes to terms with their incompatibility. “HATE SPEECH” is not compatible with tolerance, respect, honour and dignity of every individual. And HATE SPEECH is also not reconcilable with “all men are created equal”… and endowed with inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. HATE SPEECH is also not able to live in a house “divided against itself”….in fact the original “division” is insurmountable unless and until the commitment to the metaphysical notion of competition and a Manichean world view is dispensedcar.
Your right to carry weapons openly on the street directly impeded, even contradicts my right to protest safely. Your right to shoot in self-defence whenever you think you are being threatened contradicts the notion of my innocence until proven guilty. Your argument that government must not “kill fetuses” contradicts the freedom and potentially even the life of my daughter, partner, or other relative to a safe termination of a pregnancy that could have resulted from rape, incest or that, itself, threatens the life of that woman. Your claimed ‘right’ to grope my sister, daughter, partner directly contradicts each of their right to safety, and the freedom that attends that safety. Your right to pass laws that serve your personal/party/ideological/faith dictates, directly contradicts my access to work with dignity, access to health care, an education and the security of my family against your personal hegemony.
The American nation is clearly hoisted on its own petard, a view of competing absolutes, as necessary for any security and liberty, that impales it at every turn. It is the plight of all perfectionists everywhere. The world in all of its complexity cannot and will not comport with such constriction. Nature, different from your “jungle survival of the fittest” depicture, is characterized by constant change, many fruitful examples of collaboration, protection, and a degree of territoriality, that limits the need for complete power by all of its creatures. Abrogating absolute power, as is the wont and history of your evolving country, by a select few (whether they are “alpha men” and not “pajama men”, or “feministas” and not “real women” or Antifa terrorists and not White Supremacists, uber rich and not the starving and dispossessed, climate deniers and not apocryphists)….is a recipe for historic, political, cultural, and especially ethical mortality.
Statues, monuments, frozen in time, at either end of the political, religious, reality, wealth, military power, financial continuum, represent a kind of fixation with intransigence especially since “your” national depiction of success ignores millions. And contrary to your popular distortion of truth, these statues do not serve as motivation to the masses, for whom you presumably constructed them, secure in your “reality” that your project was a celebration of the national interest. Heroes, in your view, are those who have imposed their will, usually without moderation or modesty, on others.
You may do well to recall that back in the 1930’s a film made by Leni Reifenstahl, Hitler’s film-maker and image-maker, was titled, The Triumph of the Will. You are currently reaping the harvest of two centuries of the reckless imposition of the will of the top 1%, albeit that specific triumph did not come quickly, easily or without a struggle. There have been American thought and political leaders who never presumed to have a grasp on ultimate reality, nor to possess absolute power. Many of them were modest and sufficiently grounded in truth-telling, at least insofar as the “public” performance of their duties were concerned that the public interest was not sacrificed to their personal will and power needs.
That is no longer the situation. And for the foreseeable future, that will not be the anticipated situation.
Church leaders, thought leaders, labour, professional and even corporate leaders, including artists, and the marginalized now (not a few decades from now) need a forum in which to begin to reconcile American history with the truth about nature, including the nature of individual human beings, and the full nature of the current conditions of the planet. It is not only “turning weapons into ploughshares” that is needed; it is more like turning all “absolutes into approximations,” rules engraved in granite into poems written in sand, pronouncements into probing questions, hubris into humility (both personal and national), bigotry into understanding, drug deals (both prescription and illicit) into helping hands, acquisition of wealth
(as a personal goal) into the incarnation of “my brother’s keeper”…
Of course, such words are easy and somewhat glib. And transformation of a nation so steeped in the slough of its own superiority will not quickly, easily or even willingly come to recognize its desperate situation. There is more than enough culpability to go around all the major institutions inside the country, including the government, the corporations, the universities, the colleges, the labour unions, the law enforcement agencies including the Supreme Court and especially the churches. And only if and when these institutions gain a full grasp of their entrapment in self-sabotaging convictions of rigid righteousness, will a degree of reconciliation, both institutionally and thereby personally, be feasible.
Of course, the world will not hold its breath waiting for an American awakening of consciousness, and thereby conscience. There are signs of such a need for an awakening of consciousness and conscience in other quarters outside the American boundaries. However, if the world is to get about the business of saving itself from itself, it will need a very different United States than the one currently masquerading as a mature, developed, credible and trust-worthy leader on the world stage today.
There is more than a little irony in the fact that the United States established its historic reputation as the country that overthrew the royalty and now finds itself worshipping at an even more dictatorial and empty altar of a tyranny of its own making.