Monday, May 7, 2018

Calling on America's "better angels" to flesh out the true American "soul"


A brief report in the Dispatches section of the latest The Atlantic paints a picture of the deep internet, where one can find porn photography of digital bodies, with superimposed movie actresses heads, making the distinction between the “fake” and what is “real” almost imperceptible. The goal of the developers of this technology is to “democratize” it to the extent that anyone, with only two or three clicks can wreak vengeance on anyone they wish, simply by inserting their visage over such disgusting activity.

We already live in a universe in which the chief executive of the United States is blatantly and melodramatically profiting from his own superimposing the “fake” news designation on giant, historic and reputable news outlets. With the cataract of digital developments, current and imminent, most of us will be literally unable to establish a “set of facts” on which to build some relatively reasonable, and agreeable perception of reality. Nothing, including the most outlandish of both denials and of promises, will be out of line. Just this morning, a few Republican members of Congress, asked if they believed their president had lied, replied, “The president exaggerates, and does not speak the way I do; but I would be more concerned if we were not “getting things done”. Co-dependence and the enmeshment it requires and imposes turns normal people into functional echoes of the presidential universe, not merely velcroing each of them to his power and influence, while emasculating their own independent voice.

The National Institutes of Health has just embarked on a mission to gather the DNA, along with other personal biographic details of the lives of millions of Americans, with a view to studying the aggregate and the individual profiles of human identities, hoping to develop enhanced measures to combat human illnesses. Congress is reported to have passed a law encircling the data collected with protective caveats that are designed to prevent the leaking and the illicit use of the highly sensitive data. Now, dear reader, ask yourself if you would be willing to  submit your personal data, including your DNA, to the National Institutes of Health, given the sieve-like deluges of data from various sources resulting from hackers, and technological break-downs? According to the report, filed on PBS last night by Lenny Bernstein, a reporter at the Washington Post, all data is never supposed to be used even by police and law enforcement in the prosecution of any crime. Does that caveat meet your minimal expectations of personal security and freedom from invasion by forces that neither you nor I can or would trust?

This morning, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Jon Meacham’s new book, The Search for the Soul of America, provided the opportunity for the author to articulate his thesis, that, based on a deep awareness of American history, the current epoch is less depressing and soul-destroying than many believe. As he put it, we have been ‘here’ before and have summoned our better angels to move the country to a higher and a better place each time. And while none of us would question either Meacham’s research or his interpretative conclusions, and while everyone needs a large dose of historical perspective in the middle of this tsunami of lies and braggadocio, there is something different about the current situation, with threats we have never had to confront before.

Let’s make a short list:

·        Global warming and climate change with deniers in power
·        The rampant revolution in digital technology, much of it in the hands of insidious, cruel and vindictive persons and agencies
·        3 men owning more of the American economy than 50% of the people (Bazos, Buffett, Gates)
·        CEO incomes running a hundreds of percentage points above the factory floor worker
·        Insurgent rogue nations with nuclear weapons
·        An anaesthetized House of Representatives and Senate
·        More guns per capita and household than at any time in America history
·        Volcanic eruptions of violence by law enforcement agents
·        A surge of fear bordering on hysteria about immigrants
·        Poverty rates that threaten health and life of many

While this is hardly an exhaustive list, it does tend to put a cloud over Meacham’s rainbow.

And yet, we all know that much of the best in humanity’s creativity has erupted from the most egregious personal, communal and national conditions. Individuals, like Polish soldiers, risked their lives, from inside Auchwitz, in order to try to liberate Jewish prisoners from the death camp. Beethoven wrote some of his most treasured scores while facing deafness, loneliness and poverty.  Renoir painted much of his portfolio under considerable physical and emotional pain….Rescuers, ion the eye of many natural disasters, as well as human-inflicted tragedies lifted the spirits of many victims and potential victims, while risking considerable danger to themselves. Heroism, on both on the scale of a battalion, as well as from an individual, punctuates all of human history, and Meacham may well be counting on its emergence from the American slough of despair if the current depression and fear give way to positive action.

In the American lexicon of “better angels” there are names never to be forgotten, of men and women who have sprouted through the darkness and the most threatening clouds of depression, war, disease, poverty and racism. Eleanor Roosevelt, King, Bobby Kennedy, and even some of the barons of former wealth whose philanthropy established some of the best universities, hospitals, boys and girls clubs, and even some legislators worked long and hard to embolden workers, and to expand the right to vote, and to underwrite scientific and scholarly research in all fields. Legal minds, among the best in the world, have dedicated themselves to the project of a “better and more perfect union” and their memory and their role-modelling continue like stars in a part of the sky not yet completely darkened by despair. Shriver’s Peace Corps, the American Red Cross, American Foreign Aid, and the legendary Marshall Plan point dramatically and altruistically, as well as honourably and even in an exemplary manner to the core of “better angels” from which the country can draw inspiration, courage, creativity and compassion, as well as hope.

In fact, it does seem that humans have to be pushed into a corner before they become sufficiently exercised, motivated and determined to resist. And clearly, trump and his gang are doing everything they can (whether deliberately or not) to generate a massive push-back.

From another perspective, however, there is the notion of a nation mired between two extreme perceptions, as if they have become so familiar with simplifying most situations into a “good-bad” dichotomy. The retreat from the complexity of reality, into a binary world view, however, can be characterized as a reduction that both masks the nuances and enables many to take themselves off the “hook” of taking responsibility. Whether they believe they are powerless to effect change, or whether they prefer to let things slide into the sewer as a titillating and predictable (and expected)  salatious freek show of the kind that generates profit for tabloids, and for the underworld, the result is the same: a kind of passive aggression that would make most domestic displays of the trait look like a tea party.

We do not have to look far to find the kind of paralysis I am speaking of: just cast a brief glance at the United States Congress, that body that was designed to rein in autocrats and wannabe tyrants in the Oval Office. Aiding and abetting  the construct of a binary universe is a national media that turns almost all political stories into a competition between the good guy(s) and the bad guy(s)…depending on the political persuasion of the owners and the journalists. Digging an historic trench with an unshakeable tradition of and commitment to only two political parties, further heightens the profile of a “two-sided” narrative, literally and metaphorically rendering anything different too “marginal” (radical, underfunded, out in left field, dangerous, stupid, led by a fool or a nobody, too costly in dollars and/or jobs/military action, or any of a number of rationalizations).

Meacham’s prescription from history of a return of the better angels of American history, even if it has truth and validity to justify its assertion, has to be seen as modest at best. Martin Luther King’s freedom marches, incarcerations, loyalist beatings, and the unleashed angry dogs, although all of that took great courage, conviction and faith in the hope for change, based on what Meacham would toda8y call America’s better angels, fell far short of generating a modicum of equality. Voting rights were extended somewhat, and yet today have begun to fall under the spell of Republican restrictions of various sorts that make it much more difficult for blacks and poor people to cast their vote. Similarly, in the mid-twentieth century, courageous labour leaders risked their lives while generating real social change in the workplace, through fair(er) wages, benefits, pensions and hours. Again, Meacham would point to America’s better angels in his depiction of this progressive movement. And, yet, much of that enhancement of the conditions under which ordinary men and women were expected to work, has fallen into disrepair, if not actual entombment, with the overt destruction of the labour movement. Similarly, from the1970’s through to the end of the Obama presidency, there was a general and growing consciousness about the need for the “greening of America” as well as the rest of the planet. America’s better angels were soaring on the wings of public support and identification with the growing consciousness that we are, were and continue to pollute our own atmosphere with toxic gases, dirty industrial effluent and excessive garbage that overflowed thousands of land-fill sites. There were then naysayers, but there was light at the end of the tunnel on the issue, and the consciousness seeped over into other areas of American life. That whole movement, although now undergirded by even more indisputable scientific evidence, and hundreds if not thousands of additional respected and professional voices joining the choir of taking action to sustain the environment for our children and grandchildren, is atrophying under the “dead” weight of capitalists who demand fewer regulations in order to increase their profits and their dividends, and the even “deader” rigor mortis of a compliant Congress.

There is an underlying deep and profound irony in the abandonment of the “better angels” archetype by the very group one might expect to embrace, and even to exhort their colleagues to embrace the American “better angels”. That group is the evangelical “Christians” who, for the most part, have joined the trump conflagration, believing that they have found their secular “saviour”. No theatrical gestures with his family Bible, given to him by his mother, will ever penetrate the scepticism of this scribe that trump can or will save the nation from its darker angels. In fact, there is considerable evidence that he is one of those very same dark angels, wretching and shouting in anguish on the television screens, twisting in the agony of his own secrets, while evangelicals wrap him in shrouds of their brand of the sacred. How pitiable and how tragic!

So, while Meacham is a honourable, dignified and respected historian, writer and recent outstanding eulogist for Betty Ford, his “better angels” thesis will be tested severely by the short-term narcissism and head-strong intransigence of many of the 1% who increasingly call the shots in America and in too many other countries.

And the 1% is not identical to, or in any way compatible with the “better angels” in any country, and certainly not in America.

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