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Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Applebaum: The bad guys are winning....are we complicit?

 Vaclav Havel is reported to have penned these words  on hopelessness:

Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope: perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.

Havel also wrote:

Hope is a dimension of the soul, an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizon. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.

We are all living in the swirl of so many forces that seem to be so dramatic, even violent and certainly outside of any apparent attempt to rein them in, that the turbulence itself is unsettling. Hunkering down, as if in our own bunker, as if the ‘enemy’ is everywhere outside our bunker, renders only a faux-security.  Whether we are watching prices stretch beyond our capacity to pay, or the earth’s atmosphere shrivelling beyond our capacity to prevent, or the political rhetoric and actions of uncivilized, autocratic men shatter the bounds of civil society without a concerted, aligned and committed resistance except from highly motivated individuals…

we are all now engaged as full attendees in a theatre whose drama envelops us all. The days of enclosed walls, proscenium arches, theatre-in-the-round, and even appointment television of some favourite sit-com, or western, or spy mystery, those limits and frames that “package” the story and the characters who play out the story have all disappeared.

At the same time, however, the voices which have commandeered the microphones, and the airwaves, and the advertising dollars, and the contracts that once were somewhat defined, monitored and sanctioned by law have been loosed on the landscape. Rather than a somewhat massaged and managed message, shaped and written and delivered under some guidelines and protocols that included and demanded veracity, trust, reliability and civility, the old “frontier” of lawlessness has exploded into what we call the ‘metaverse’….or at least that’s what Zuckerberg calls it, as he, along with many others, prepare to stake claim to it.

It is the universe of the autocrat, the oligarch, the plutocrat (how outmoded and sanitized is that word!), and the funding sources of those mostly men, supported and abetted however, by many ambitious women, that appears to be winning.

Anne Applebaum, in her most recent piece in The Atlantic, writes under a headline

“The Bad Guys are Winning”…referencing the several prominent and dangerous autocrats who not only dominate their own nation and people, but are now working together, trading, banking and setting their own trends of action, propaganda and manipulative control…to satisfy their own deep and insatiable need indeed quest for absolute power.

They care only about retaining power, and care less and less about the needs, aspirations, hopes and dreams of the people living under their rule. And, because the instruments of democracy were never designed for a world in which such power in so many capitals would be permitted to reside in so many different hands, the necessary counter-point to such demagoguery and tyranny seems limited if not actually futile.

And yet, is the same kind of mentality not riding herd on the digital landscape, where seduction machines (algorithms) seduce innocent minds, eyes, and ears into a digital world where civility, veracity, reliability and trust have been trashed on the landfill of history?

And, are there not similar motives and methods being deployed every day in corporate executive suites responsible for producing products under the express purpose of “healing” human pain while knowingly generating hundreds of thousands, if not millions of premature deaths. (Think opiods! Think Thalidmoide! Think tobacco! Think fossil fuels! Think excess sugars and salts! Think alcohol!)

And also “think weapons” and the vast empire that manufactures, markets and then deploys the most lethal, most secretive, most hypersonic and most ubiquitous hardware to every corner of the world, under the rubric of safety and security, and of course the profit of those profiteers at the core of the business.

Are we not, as a race, becoming more and more aware each day of the certainties of how power, in all of its many forms and faces, is shifting into the hands of a very few, at the expense of a very many, whose voices and counter-point fades into street protests in Glasgow and other cities around the globe, after another wet-noodle climate conference? Is our sense doubt and hopelessness not birthing a consciousness among the young and some iconoclastic grey-beards that what we are witnessing, in the actions of the tyrants, and the terrorists, and the under-belly of the dark internet, as well as in the open in the crowded ports of, for example, Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Scammers, drug lords, internet moguls, morally bankrupt political operatives, and even medical professionals who serve their own narcissism through profiting from their ‘take’ in each prescription….also serve the oligarchs even while attempting to evade the legal authorities charged with their capture and arrest.

Who is going to capture and arrest the oligarchs? Who is going to capture and arrest the ‘deconstructionists’ otherwise known as obstructionists, or self-proclaimed insurrectionists, like the thousands of  Steve Bannon’s who have informally and surreptitiously joined a kind of tidal wave of insurrection, deconstruction…including the undermining of veracity, reliability, respect and trust?

In a word, no system is either large enough or has the capability to rein in the plethora of voices for whom extremism has become their modus operandi. Just yesterday, Michael Flynn, formerly infamous National Intelligence Director in the trump administration, spoke publicly about the need for the United States to adopt a single religion. The notion of a unitarian (not the sect but the concept of absolute one-man-rule) state, morphing into a theocracy, as some nations like Iran have already, seems on the surface to be irreconcilable with democracy.

And yet, most would have thought that a president and a presidency like the one that held power in Washington from 2016 through 2020, was also unthinkable and irreconcilable with democracy.

Presidential historian Jon Meacham, appearing on The Beat with Ari Melber on MSNBC, commented that there never was an ‘edenic period’ in American history. When Melber asked, by stretching the metaphor, “Who would the snake be in that Eden?” Meacham replied, “Our ambition!”

While there is an inherent innate ambition in each of us, to achieve, to move forward, to live the ‘good life’ however we might define that, the line of acceptable intersection of our ambition with the ambition of another seems to have moved away from a line that all parties acknowledge and respect, into a kind of haze of deliberate and defining obscurity leading to the take-over by the most unscrupulous, the most driven, the most ambitious and the most unconscious of the public good. We have, in our complicit silence, insouciance, and withdrawal from the fray of public service, exponentially demonstrated with the spikes in threats to school board members who seek to protect the children in their schools by voting for mask mandates, vaccine mandates and the like, permitted the unscrupulous men (and it is mostly men who have rushed into the vacuum) to take over the field known as the public square.

Additionally, there is no likelihood that Biden can or will lecture Xi Jinping on the incarceration of Uyghurs in China, only to be countered with the hundreds of years of slavery of black Americans in the United States. Similarly, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau has little “room” for self-righteous lectures of nations where human rights are under threat, given our own history of apartheid for the First Nations, and the recent discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of children imprisoned in residential schools. Similar stories play out in various regions and among various “tribes” in and out of power in developing nations.

Colonization, the domination of one group by another group, is another of the “realizations” that is screaming out of headlines around the globe. Whether it takes a historical form, or a more contemporary form in the intersection of refugees, immigrants forced from their native lands into the barbed-wire borders of other lands, there is a human cry of not only a profound imbalance of wealth, education, opportunity, health care, but also of sheer brute force. By whatever name, and whether it is exercised by a state, a military force, a tyrant, a president, or even a mother or a father, it is still abuse…the abuse of a single human being by another…whether by another single human being or a group.

And whenever and wherever we see such attitudes, actions words and abuse, even in our own homes, schools, churches, social service non-profits, evidence of the bully has to be exposed. And whether the bully is living under the reputation of status in the community, or not, each encounter has to be considered on its own merit. We are not going to remove, eliminate or even moderate the human proclivity to seek and deploy power, whether within the bounds of conventional social grace, or the limits of legal constriction, or the shared commitment to respect for each other (long ago evaporated from the political rhetoric in the U.S.) if we do not share a commitment to identify its ugly attitude, voice, action or even insult when we encounter it.

And the risk to such an identification, for each of us, is considerable. After all, who wants or expects to eliminate all insults, all differences of opinion, all ideologies, all religions and all debates. After all, debate and difference, when conducted under a modicum of conventional expectations, generates better collaborative decisions.

However, it is in the manner in which these debates are conducted that the danger lurks. The presumption of power and status, among those with wealth, formal education, titles, official positions of power, including judges, doctors, lawyers, accountants, professors, principals, and even those with more wealth than many in their own communities cannot and must not be justification for assuming prominent, priority, and power over those who appear to ‘have less”…especially of the symbols of power and status.

There is not a single person in any of our circles who has not experienced the abuse of power by others who took advantage of them, abused them, betrayed them, or even injured them without cause. Some such experiences were so shocking both because of their severity and their unexpected source (perhaps a parent, or a clergy, or a teacher,) that they have left scars that never fully heal. Lives are spent reckoning with such abuse. And yet, while the incidents of such abuse occur to those in the public eye generate considerable attention, the millions of lesser abuses, inflicted in the anonymity of secrecy, like the thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women, remain social secrets.

In this era of extremes, exaggerated hopelessness, perhaps it is unsurprising that we are becoming conscious of the many previously undisclosed abuses that collectively, if unconsciously, we have permitted to be kept hidden.

The risk is that, in removing the scabs and exposing the wounds, we will simultaneously embolden other abusers so devoid of self, and so in need of attention that we will provide the very magnet for their need to be exercised. A similar approach accompanies hostage taking incidents….we will not negotiate because that will embolden others to imitate the abuse.

On the other side of the abuse of power is the ubiquitous victim, and our culture is becoming inured to the story of the victim, given the tidal wave of stories at the individual level. We risk missing the forest of international political abuse of power, for example, in permitting nations and leaders to opt out of obligations to preserve and to protect the planet, while we fret over the stories of individual victims’ stories of their abuse.

Self-righteous, idolatrous religion, and the dependency it has on charismatic again mostly men, is a prevalent form of the abuse of power, rendering many of its converts to a state of infantilism. And while the abusers are the men in charge, the victims are somewhat complicit, in that they are willing and too often eager to surrender their own boundaries to escape the pain of their whatever…loneliness, unworthiness, alienation, self-perceived sin and shame, illiteracy, lack of education, poverty….the list is endless.

In the political arena, too, it is shame, fear, need to escape these demons that can lead millions to the false security of a false promising prophet. Tyrants do not erupt from a vacuum. They are an integral component of a culture, a Petrie dish in which their venomous tyranny is seeded. And that dish is both individual and social, both attributable to the traits and ambition of a single person, and to the “green house” of the political culture in which that ambition can and will grow.

Personal responsibility does not stop at the property fence of our abode. Public responsibility does not stop there either. Both are intertwined, intermingled and mutually supportive….both for the negative and the positive.

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