As yesterday’s election approached, I found myself thinking about the final scenes from a book I read while an undergraduate student. It involved a truck, a group of kids, a cliff, and, well, you know the rest.
In the 1970 novel by Glendon Swarthout entitled Bless the Beasts and the Children, a group of outcast teenaged boys revolts against a brutal summer camp which promised to “make a cowboy out of the boy.” The group conspired to liberate a nearby herd of domesticated bison held captive to supply a canned hunting operation. Chased by angry would-be hunters, the boys escape in a hot-wired truck but quickly realize their only escape route leads directly to a canyon rim. At the last minute the boys leap from the truck but their doomed leader still at the wheel plunges off the cliff to his death.
It was a troubling novel which was quickly made into a mediocre movie starring Billy Mumy of Lost in Space fame. The irenic theme song from the film recorded by the Carpenters provided little clue of the angst and despair the novel and the film portrayed. “Bless the beasts and the children, for in this world they have no choice. They have no voice…”
Images of that plunge over the precipice have dominated my dreams the last few weeks as the elections approached. I’ve watched in breath taking horror at what proved to be an inexorable result.
Trading in Citizenship for Consumerism
A Republican Senate will ensure that the best ideological Supreme Court corporate money could buy will remain in place for another decade at least. It will mean more mediocre minds like Alito and less brilliant minds like Ginsberg. It will also mean that the Senate will devolve into the same kind of ideological morass and intellectual wasteland that the House has been the last six years.
More importantly, it means that any real attentiveness to the crying needs of the country will be placed on permanent hold to accommodate the coming circus inside the Beltway. Like the residents of a dying Roman empire packed into coliseums, at least we’ll be entertained.
In years past, I would have been chagrined that the American electorate would deliberately choose to shoot itself in the foot once again, electing governments that do not serve the common good. I would have asked how anyone could rationally vote for candidates who do not represent their own interests – working poor voters who elect Congresses willing to bail out Wall Street but cut off unemployment compensation or raise minimum wage; middle class voters who bemoan higher tuition for their children but vote in state legislatures and governors who steadily defund universities and public schools while demanding more and more from them.
Of course, that presumes that the American electorate is rational and makes decisions based upon reason and evidence. The re-election of George Bush and the resulting train wreck that managed to plunge the nation into a depression and the world into war removed any hopes that reason has much to do with American voting patterns. As the crusty old curmudgeon H.L. Mencken often observed, “No one in this world, so far as I know…has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”
Thomas Jefferson envisioned an ever expanding electorate which was educated, informed itself and sought to serve the common good through engaging the democratic process. The signal that his dream was nearing an end came in the 1980 election in which the presidential race boiled down to a single question by then-candidate Ronald Reagan: “Are YOU better off than you were four years ago?” No reason involved, no consideration for the common good, just self-interest, pure and simple.
The American people gladly took the bait and ran with it. It was the apotheosis of the egocentric electorate and the death knells of any real concern for the common good.
In the process we have traded being citizens with obligations to society, the system which governs us and to each other, for being consumers, waiting for a limited set of arbitrary, pre-packaged choices to be presented us and then complaining about the choices we get. We don’t inform ourselves, we simply wait for the campaign ads to tell us why the other guy is a bigger loser than the one the ad – whose sponsors we never know – supports. We ingest the sound bites and talking points we are fed to rationalize our “choices” and become highly defensive when asked to explain why we are voting as we are because, in truth, we generally don’t know.
With the decision in Citizens United and the subsequent decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, the barrage of carefully constructed propaganda that has supplanted any kind of meaningful campaign advertising will only get larger and louder. Campaigns have become yet another public good privatized to insure profit-making at the expense of the American public. Any semblance of meaningful political discourse in America, if we ever really had any, is largely a thing of the past.
Crises to Be Ignored
That’s why the vehicle hurtling toward the precipice has dominated my dreams these past few weeks. In truth, I’m quite clear that a Republican Party now captive to its fundamentalist religious and free market bases and beholden to the corporate money that insures its compliance is incapable of leading the country. But I’ve also lost hope that a timorous and tepid Democratic Party offers much of an alternative. Had the Democrats prevailed Tuesday and preserved the status quo, another two years of spiteful polarization and political paralysis would still have awaited us.
It’s cliché to say that our political system is broken. I think the diagnosis is much graver. As I see it, the unlimited spending of corporate and 1% moneys to construct the understandings we consume combined with the complete abdication of an electorate which has chosen to be consumers rather than citizens insures that our corrupted system will not be replaced anytime soon. It is, in the description of sociologist Erich Fromm, a rather classic Escape from Freedom. And with the inevitable success of corporate funded candidates in elections, their ability to restrict participation in elections to those likely to support the 1% agenda drives the last nail in democracy’s coffin.
Jefferson was right – democracy cannot work in a society which is not educated, informed and committed to the common good. Yet, at a very basic level, we seem unable to tear ourselves from the sidelines, frozen in place as we watch in horror as our nation, like the truck full of misfit teenaged boys who now constitute our Congress, inexorably plunges into the abyss.
But the very real problems America faces will not simply go away because we have chosen to hide our heads in the sand. Like cancers on the body politic, they fester and threaten to devour us from inside out. Among those crises are the following:
· The impending collapse of the nation’s infrastructure.
· The desperate need to secure new, sustainable energy sources
· The growing economic inequality in America that threatens the very social fabric of our nation.
· The increasing militarization of cities and campuses and the resulting increase in police volatility, unpredictability and brutality.
· The completely irresponsible gun policy that has turned our campuses, movie theaters and shopping centers into slaughterhouses
· The lobotomizing of education from test-driven public schools to corporatized factory process universities.
· The inability to come to terms with a changing world and the failure of outdated, costly and futile “wars” on terrorism and drugs
· A changing workforce in which an army of Baby Boomers head toward uncertain retirements and an army of college educated and indebted Millennials head toward unfulfilling minimum wage jobs
All of these smaller crises ride on the backs of two much larger existential crises: the degeneration of the American electoral system and the threats of climate change. The failure to deal with the former will insure the devolution of America into a corporate oligarchy in which largely meaningless elections are used to ratify the foregone conclusions serving thinly veiled vested interests. The failure to deal with the latter will mean that all the preceding concerns will be moot as waves of climate refugees flee flooded coastal cities and encroaching deserts to overwhelm remaining food and water supplies.
Without a vision, the people perish.
In the face of these very real crises, a Republican Congress pledged to do little more than oppose anything proposed by a Democratic President who in turn is largely relegated to wielding the veto pen does not bode well. But it is the bed we Americans have made for ourselves and now we must lie in it.
The Coming Chaos
If misery likes company, I am slightly consoled knowing I am hardly alone in these concerns. David DeGraw, one of the major movers within the Occupy movement, lays out his concerns in an essay entitled The Coming Revolution: Evolutionary Leap or Descent Into Chaos and Violence? at his website Economics of Revolution:
For all the problems we are confronted by, there are existing viable solutions. There is much to feel positive about. A decentralized global uprising is undermining systems of centralized and consolidated power. A new world is being born.
However, as exciting as the evolution presently occurring is, after extensive research I am forced to confront the fact that I do not see how emerging solutions will reach a critical mass and create the needed change before the effects of inequality, poverty and the overall deterioration of society will lead to widespread chaos and violence. As much as I wish this wasn’t the case, as much as I want to just disengage from the status quo and focus on the implementation of local solutions, we cannot ignore the urgent need for significant systemic change on a mass scale now.
DeGraw is braver than I am. He actually dares to look over the edge of the precipice to see what looms beyond the plunge. It is not a pretty picture.
I pray he is wrong but intuitively sense he is right. Last weekend a worried friend in DC reminded me what this might mean: “The last time we were faced with this crisis we chose Roosevelt. The Germans chose Hitler. This time we might not be so lucky.”
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Osceola Regional Campus, Kissimmee
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++