I don’t always agree with CNN talking head Fareed Zakaria but as of late he’s offered some fairly incisive commentary on the US elections and our role in the world. This past week he penned a column in the Washington Post that painted a bullseye on the pathology that has marked this year’s Republican nomination process. To wit:
Here is a much simpler explanation for Donald Trump: Republicans have fed the country ideas about decline, betrayal and treason. They have encouraged the forces of anti-intellectualism, obstructionism and populism. They have flirted with bigotry and racism. Trump merely chose to unashamedly embrace all of it, saying plainly what they were hinting at for years. In doing so, he hit a jackpot.
The problem is not that Republican leaders should have begun to condemn Trump last year. It is that they should have condemned the ideas and tactics that led to his rise when they began to flourish 20 years ago.
Zakaria is onto something here. When you pimp the public with fear mongering and play the country’s ends against the middle with tribalistic us v. them thinking for so long, it should hardly be surprising when this pattern of thinking takes on a life of its own. Moral panics are fostered by opportunistic moral entrepreneurs, festered by an opportunistic media and routinely produce destructive results historically. The public pays the price for such unabashed grasps at power.
Words *can* hurt us….
One point I continually attempt to make in my posts on my blogs, on Facebook and in emails to people is that the way we conceptualize the world and express those understandings makes a difference. Contrary to the nursery rhyme, while sticks and stones can break our bones, words can definitely hurt us and not just for the moment. It should not be surprising that an extended legacy of misanthropy and declining expectations from an American public more than willing to trade in civics for entertainment is manifesting itself in the sleazeball politics of the current election.
It is a common tactic to approach politics as we might approach sports, thinking instrumentally. In such a limited and immediate analysis, whatever it takes to win becomes acceptable. The end – winning – justifies virtually any means.
But the reality is that the means employed almost always determine the ends we actually obtain. When subtly disguised racism – and some not so subtly disguised – becomes the focus of a campaign, it affects the way we see ourselves as Americans. It should not be surprising that we come to view groups that differ from us by ethnicity, national origin, religion with suspicion. But when those aspects of our humanity which have historically been seen as immutable become fair game for exploitation in a game in which real power may eventually be brought to bear, how safe can any of us really feel?
It was supposed to be a satire
Perhaps more importantly, what can we really expect from a president charged with negotiating with the heads of the world’s nation states who was elected by means of frat house humor? When the tenor of our public discourse is set at the lowest level by those seeking our highest office, what happens to our nation's status internationally much less the body politic at home?
If you want a troubling look at a possible answer to that question, invest a couple of hours to watch the 2006 film Idiocracy. And bear in mind that the filmmaker created this film with a profanity spouting, machine gun totin' president and a public who responds to everything with mindless consumerist mantras as a satire. He recently said he feared it was becoming a documentary.
I’m Mad as Hell and…..
Of course, we must not discount the role that anger plays in this election. There is no small amount of anger over being economically displaced and socially discarded, anger no doubt misdirected as working class voters elect the very people who have screwed them over and over. There is anger over a Congress beholden to the corporate and moneyed interests who pay for their enormously expensive campaigns trading in childish caricatures while avoiding substantive issues like the plague. And there is a lot of anger over the increasing solidification of the material wealth of the 1-10% obtained by raping the 90-99% fighting over what’s left.
I’m angry, too and with good reason. But I am unwilling to cut my nose off to spite my face to express that anger. The very real concerns I face in my life as a recent retiree, like most Americans, have nothing to do with Muslims or Mexicans. Our lives will not be better if gay marriage is abolished or if unions are dissolved. And our trust in the hands that will have access to the “football” that could launch a nuclear strike has little to do with the size of those hands or the crude analogy to the male anatomy that was made from the stage of the last Republican debate.
A frighteningly familiar gesture
America is dancing dangerously close to the abyss these days. The polemics of scapegoating and nationalism sounds frighteningly familiar to those of us who study world history. Fascism did not solve Germany and Italy’s problems and it will not solve ours. It also did not simply erupt overnight; it arose in a decided stream of angry rhetoric fostered by opportunistic political figures which then followed a path of scapegoating and nationalism deliberately confused with patriotism to death and destruction.
If we must be angry – and if you’re not angry you’re not paying attention – let us channel that anger toward real change, addressing the problems we face. Feel good, blow-hard nationalism and scapegoating of socially disadvantaged people is not only counterproductive, it is childish. Indeed, in times gone by, we could have safely said it was un-American.
There is too much to lose in an election where everything from the ability of working people to actually make a living to the ability of the human race to dodge annihilation by climate change forms the subtext of the election. It’s time we grow up, adolescent America, and face our demons. As the 1st CE Jewish sage Hillel once posed it, “If not now, when?”
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)