Friday, November 18, 2016

Chronicle of Discontent

"There is great disorder under heaven, the situation is excellent."  - Mao Zedong

I found myself the other day for the first time in a long while listening to an installment of Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now" without having to wince at every other word or finally turn it off in disgust or aversion. For the past several years the critical rhetoric on the Left had come to sound like a mirror image of that on the Right and I'd come to wonder how I'd arrived at this point, after supporting revolutionary causes and goals my entire life. How could the prominent voices of the progressive Left put me off as much as the Right wing voices of Fox News? And how exactly did the election of Donald Trump, which I consider to be the third greatest blow against American Democracy (after the Civil War and the attacks on 9/11) bring me back?

During the first part of my recent year in Colorado, before my Denver burnout and during the primaries I found myself deeply involved and participating in a room full of Democrats, mostly Bernie supporters, mostly young, during the county caucuses. I was on the 'other' side of the room with a handful of Hillary advocates, mostly middle aged, mostly women, the chosen spokesperson addressing the two undecided voters in the middle, trying to persuade them to join our side. This was months before the convention and the Bernie people were in the midst of a groundswell that brought up reminiscences of the year leading up to the Obama presidency and the summer of Occupy Wall Street. A year earlier the young Colorado Democrats had risen up and organized an overthrow of a Jefferson County School Board that had attempted to radically 'adjust' their curriculum to accommodate the agendas of the Christian Right. Colorado was a state that hovered on the edge between red and blue, with the eastern and western rural counties heavily Republican and the exploding urban centers north of Colorado Springs Denver becoming increasingly young and increasingly Democrat. These young people were really inspiring. 

Recently I'd moved to Denver from Santa Fe, partly for business reasons and partly to escape what I'd come to perceive as bing caught in a somewhat stifling middle class upscale ghetto where the elderly and connected came to die. I'd become quite disillusioned in regards to my own generation, mostly well past middle age and having left behind the creative drive of our youth. We still carried the vestigial and nostalgic remnants of an activist past which we trotted out reliably whenever a wave of progressive group-think came sweeping through. Perhaps my disillusionment was the result of having packed up my idealism into packages of new age revelation, from gurus to Harmonic Convergence to mushrooms to Zen Buddhism while never having satisfactorily resolved the tensions between seeking inner revelation and coming to grips with the terrible situations haunting the outside world. 

When I'd first left Denver, Ronald Reagan was still the president and we faced the weird surrealistic constructs of a fanciful conservative dreamworld. Reagan was then followed by the first George Bush for a total of sixteen years of Conservative reaction against the perceived 'excesses' of the years in which I'd come of age. In those anarchistic acid fueled 'revolutionary' days after failing with McGovern and having to deal with Nixon, we'd finally elected our homeboy Jimmy Carter, only to see his administration thoroughly trashed by both circumstance and trickery in the face of inexperience. The first acts of political resistance I got involved in when I came south were demonstrations against the storage of nuclear waste in southern New Mexico. After all the noise and protest they went ahead and built it anyway. After that there was the first Iraq war, which ended ambiguously and partly led a weary population to finally shift their allegiance from 'trickle down' everything to giving a young and idealistic couple who were the first of our generation the chance to lead. The Clinton years gave rise to the Christian Right and the migration of the southern white middle classes to the Republican Party and all this erupted into a vicious no holds barred cultural insurrection led by Newt Gingrich. Having elected Clinton the new coalition of the educated urban young and rising black middle classes failed to turn up for the midterms. They lost congress to the opposing party (a hard lesson that obviously wasn't learned as it was repeated in 2011). This led to more years of frustrating culture clashes, even as a new economy arose based on information management through computer technologies. This brought enormous prosperity to members of a new elite, many of whom had been in the vanguard of those who had once dreamed of social revolution. At the same time the industrial economy began to relocate to other countries in order to compete in a newly expanded global market. While the elites got rich the middle class began to fall behind. 

Having overstepped their perceived 'mandate' to turn America into a Right Wing theocracy the forces of conservative reaction failed to overthrow Clinton but succeeded in dragging the country through years of humiliation and embarrassment. This, along with redistricting by a Republican congress and a conservative balance on the Supreme Court prepared the ground for the narrow and to many, unfair, victory of a second George Bush. He came in with a promise to end the scandals and bring in the dawn of a "compassionate conservatism" that would temper the supply side philosophy that's part of Republican Gospel.

Then an enormous and in the long term possibly fatal blow to American Democracy took place with the attacks on 911. This was the most outrageously successful terrorist event since the sinking of the Lusitania led to the start of World War One. The event led on one hand to a rise in solidarity among citizens of the western nations. On the flip side it fed a burgeoning sense of paranoia and fear which elevated the fortunes of conspiracy theorists, white supremacist militias and extremist fanatics and lead to a rapid rise in anti-immigration and nationalist sentiment.

The long and the short of all this is that the last forty years have been a rollercoaster ride of hope and disappointment felt on all sides of the political spectrum. The extreme polarities that characterized the clashes in the sixties between the young and the old have been passed on through two generations driven. A mind-numbing acceleration in technology offered hopeful, even utopian possibilities while on the other hand driving us into increasingly isolated camps and echo chambers where perception was processed through more and more exclusive filters. 

I grew up in the lower rungs of the middle class in Cleveland, Ohio in the fifties and sixties. My father did not own a business, he worked for one. He held a white collar position as a salesman, selling hardware to construction companies. We lived in what was then called the inner city, a neighborhood that was formerly rural but had been some decades gone absorbed by the growing industrial port city on the Great Lakes. Cleveland had been founded as an extension of Connecticut in the eighteenth century and as America moved west it became connected to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers via the Ohio and Erie Canals and the Atlantic Ocean through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. It was a center of the oil industry run by John D. Rockefeller and others and its prosperity attracted waves of European immigrants and black refugees from the south through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. When I came on the scene the city's economy had peaked just after World War Two, with every major industry having a presence, from cars to oil to steel, aluminum and even salt.

When I was in junior high school John F. Kennedy was assassinated. When I was sixteen the first urban race riots broke out in the black communities on the east side of Cleveland and in other cities. The new president Lyndon Johnson got the Civil Rights Bill passed and started his "War On Poverty," to address the underlying causes of civil unrest. I was recruited in high school into a program for students from relatively lower income families who had excelled on intelligence tests but were struggling in academics. We were congregated on the campus of a very prestigious college on the 'other' side of town and exposed to a concentrated summertime program of intellectual and cultural education. It was intended to jump start us into college careers, and we were given admission and scholarships to the elite institutions that hosted the experiment. Most of the participants in the program were people of color, mostly drawn from the black and Puerto Rican populations of urban centers like Cleveland.   

I came into the university and out of my neighborhood with a different view than most of my peers in the then highly segregated community of Cleveland, divided down the middle by the Cuyahoga River into West Side and East Side. Rarely did the two mingle. Where I had always felt a bit like an outsider I now felt fully accepted and embraced by all of my cohorts in this social experiment and when I returned to the almost exclusively 'white' West Side during the regular school year I felt even more like an outsider. My friends were the the 'exceptional' students, the ones who were curious and who questioned and explored. We were also the 'troublemakers' who questioned authority while we were at the same time being groomed for success.

In the summer I would go back to the east side where I watched the city burn after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The university, being surrounded on three sides by ghetto was the National Guard staging area. I watched from my room as nightly convoys went out to establish Marshall Law. I played board games with black nationalists. I participated in the election of the nation's first black big city mayor, Carl Stokes. My counselors told me stories of voting rights drives in the deep south. My life was surrounded in cultural dialogue. 

I was precipitated fully into the college scene in the midst of the cultural upheavals of the late sixties and early seventies. My black friends were caught up in struggles with white privilege and the social establishment of 'higher' education. I took part, but after a while I felt myself excluded by the obvious fact of racial advantage. My new friends were mostly East Coast Jews from upper middle class families who could afford to send their kids to the "Harvard of the Midwest." There were lots of drugs, and sexual liberation, and parties and revolution in the streets. Everything that was going on around the world of academics made that world seem to me less and less relevant. I stuck it out for three and a half years until my draft number was missed in the Vietnam draft lottery and being no longer personally threatened by the possibilities of being sent to the War I dropped out and started searching in earnest for an alternative to the culture in which I'd been born.

At first the search was all about politics and alternative communities and avoiding the impending doom of civilization. I spent a summer hitchhiking across the West and a year living on the Florida Gulf. Then my father died and I found myself back in Cleveland working as a dishwasher and protesting what would be the final dregs of the Vietnam conflict. Then I hitched another ride West to Colorado where I met my guru and my future wife and became intensely involved in a large intentional community that had taken on the task of reforming the whole world, starting with Denver. Being part of a very large intentional community I experienced first hand the amazing power of focused, collective will. That community briefly prospered and then dissolved, but not before becoming a focal point of what would become a revolution in consciousness about food and agriculture. (We were mostly vegetarians and inspired by necessity to seek alternatives to the traditional American diet.)

The dissolution of the community and of my marriage along with an ongoing feeling of disconnect and discomfort with the world around me led me to retreat south to New Mexico and what I felt were new opportunities. I came to Santa Fe with high hopes for the future and saw many hopes realized and many more dissipate. All along there persisted that feeling of malaise, that something is far from right in a world that appears full of contradictions and hypocrisies and to which I could never fully pledge allegiance. 

Which brings me back to that room in Colorado during the Denver caucus. I remember clearly that my message to the large group gathered on the other side of the room was that, "I don't think you are ready yet." That is, for the revolution that most everyone wishes were here right now.

__________________________________

I remember attending a lecture by Noam Chomsky in Albuquerque sometime in the mid nineties.  It seemed like everyone who considered themselves part of what was being called the 'progressive' community, from Santa Fe to Taos was there. I sat and listened to Noam rattling off his inventory of the recent crimes of the American Imperialist Empire for an hour or more, and then I remember coming away feeling completely demoralized. The talk had not inspired in me any impulse toward action. Instead it felt like I'd been bludgeoned with history. 

That talk was a turning point for me. In the years since I have became more and more sensitized toward what seemed like inflexible dogma and an almost universal cynicism on the Left toward anything remotely connected to the American government's actions at home or abroad. I felt more and more like we were moving along like a thoughtless mob, responding automatically to forms of group think masquerading as political critique but in actuality manifesting predictability and conformity.

All of this came to a head after Barack Obama was elected to his first term as president. Here was a young, educated and eloquent black man who had the power with his words to raise the hopes of those who were willing to challenge the future. These qualities I couldn't fail to admire but I was very doubtful that this country would overcome its' inherent racism enough to elect someone who wasn't white. I sincerely thought that a white woman whom I also admired and respected as a fighter might offer a less daunting and more probable step forward. My biggest reservations were not with Obama, but with the movement that propelled his candidacy. Along with the giddy hope that this one man would be able to change the course of history was the kind of blind and unquestioning devotion devoted to a rock star. 

I was no longer a young man, but I remembered well the groundswells of my youth that propelled the candidacies of George McGovern, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and I remember the fierce opposition that those candidacies engendered. I remembered how our expectations were crushed by the reaction and relentless opposition and how our own support collapsed when it came to electing the kind of congress that would be at the president's back. The first of these administrations ended in political disaster, the second ended in embarrassment, and the third in humiliation. Like Many an old codger, I was skeptical of the enthusiasms of youth.

By the time Obama clinched the nomination I realized that here was a fighter and a strategist with not only the words but the will to win and to get things done. I became an avid supporter, although I still held reservations regarding the unrealistic expectations loudly voiced by so many of his followers.

After Obama's victory and short honeymoon with congress my apprehensions were fully realized. Almost from the beginning the ideological rigidity of the Left joined with the rabid and racist resistance of the Right to challenge any progress toward achieving any realistic reforms that old be made without either compromising or inflaming the passions of either side. By the time the midterms came around in 2011 the Left had retreated into its usual cynicism and the Right had organized itself behind the passionate rhetoric and resistance of extremists and, just as in the Clinton years, a Democrat administration was then faced with a Republican Congress. Over the next six years my admiration for Obama only increased as he faced the uphill fight against criticism and condemnation from both the Left and the Right. More and more the criticisms from both camps became more and more like a single chorus.

My own cynicism and sense of discomfort increased over these years. I live in a community of people who are near the top of the economic and educational food chain. When I hear their protests on behalf of the poor and the disadvantaged I am simultaneously aware that the very system we protest is what makes our lifestyles as consumers possible. I became deeply suspect of the attitudes of privilege and actively distanced myself from movements like "Occupy Wall Street" as I saw it as being without a direction or real vision that would connect it with people's lives or last longer than a summer vacation. (I was both right and wrong: the movement as such did indeed fold, but its critique of class struggle went on to fuel the rise of the Bernie Sanders candidacy that has forced the Democratic Party to move in a more progressive direction.)   

I began to sympathize with the likes of the brilliant playwright David Mamet, who became so disgusted with the repetitive dogmas and political correctness of the Left that he began to see it as the biggest threat to American Democracy. He reacted by writing a book long screed ("The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture") declaring his revulsion and newfound allegiance to the voices of conservative reaction (I hope that this is a temporary fever.). I never went that far, but I certainly began to see his point. I found that whenever I listened to or read the words of intellectuals on the Left I began to feel a familiar sense of discomfort and even resistance. It began to feel like the preachings of a religion that assumed everyone shared its point of view but was incredibly predictable and empty of useful critical thought. An exception to this was encountering the Yugoslavian philosopher and activist, Slavoj Zizek, whose critiques of the Left in both Europe and the United States struck me as being both fully engaged in a revolutionary sense and absolutely resistant to the rigidities of ideology. Zizak's critique of the positivist anarchism of Noam Chomsky helped me to understand my own discomfort. It's not enough to analyze and catalogue the crimes of a culture and then to expect that the people will see the light and rise up. One must arrive at a clear vision of the future before the people will respond. To quote him in the introduction to the book, "Living In The End Times," (which has been a very therapeutic read for me in the wake of this election): 

"...mere description of the state of things, no matter how accurate, fail to generate emancipatory effects - ultimately, they only render the burden of the lie more oppressive, or, to quote Mao..., "lift up a rock only to drop it on their own feet."


When Bernie Sanders decided to run for the nomination I supported him financially, although I never seriously entertained the notion that a socialist Jew from Vermont could win the presidency. My emotional allegiance was to the possibility of the first woman president, which would at least advance the underlying cultural agenda even in the face of political opposition. Also, I didn't trust in the 'rock star' nature of his young followers which too much resembled the fickle support that had first elevated and then abandoned Barack Obama. This younger generation had not yet gained my trust to wage the bloody battle that I knew was coming. By the time I reached that classroom in Denver I had fully declared my support for the campaign of Hillary Clinton. 

_________________________________


With the disaster of the Trump victory the fingers are now pointing in all directions. Personally I don't regret either my allegiance or my support, although I regret being pulled at times into the often rude and nasty infighting. I don't think in hindsight that whoever was the nominee would have changed significantly the outcome. We will never know this. The salient fact is that an enormous shock has now been thrown into the political system, one at least as significant as the repercussions from 911, and which threatens our Democracy and our very sense of ourselves as a nation. I believe however that in every disaster there lies opportunity. For the first time in years I feel like the basic contradictions that have characterized both the Left and the Right in this country have been fully exposed. Too many have assumed that we can change the system without changing the way that we live as well as the fundamental assumptions and expectations with which we surround ourselves. What we've discovered is that many of those assumptions are not only false but intensely hypocritical when viewed by people who do not share them. The revolution cannot only be a revolution of the privileged, who assume that their way of seeing the world is essentially the 'correct' way. The failure of the Left has been threefold. It's a failure to articulate in ways that are understood the concerns of those whose lives exist outside of the confederation of the privileged. It has failed to provide a clear vision that goes beyond the contradictions of the present to outline a coherent vision of the future. Most of all we are resistant to making meaningful changes in the ways we live our own lives. 

Once again, when I listen to the voices of the Left I've begun to tune in to the indications of real soul searching and perhaps an abandonment of too familiar dogmas inhibiting our approach to creative possibilities. We are faced with a daunting task, one made more critical and urgent by the ascendency of forces in reaction. We can no longer afford to indulge ourselves in cynicism and arrogance. We must be clever. We must question all that we think we know to discover the authentic moments and the ways we must proceed. Enormous changes are upon us whether we act responsibly or not. The outcome for ourselves and for the world will be decided by the choices we make in the face of disaster. Our task is nothing less than the re-imagination of the world, and it is urgent.

     
R.E.M.


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"If you want to find pure gold, you must see it through fire." - Mumonkan

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