But when we get used to the lives we live, we focus ever more on those things about it that don't work and instead of realizing that life can be a terribly tragic thing that little by little we can make better, we become obsessed by pulling the tree out from the roots, and in doing so, eventually make that sturdy thing that is a functional society as fragile as we can, until someone with grand promises can burn the whole thing down in a great bonfire of the vanities.
And in such moments, it's very easy to commit to a project of a transcendent possibility that changes the fundamental rules of human progress without realizing that with every progression comes a regression. Two steps forward, one point nine-nine steps back, and the true progress is left to be reaped by future generations. The same 'isms' always present themselves, old ideas with new cosmetics, and it becomes increasingly difficult to not surrender a large part of your individuality to a supposedly greater cause. The intelligent among you become less interesting, less unique, less possible, than you could be. The most functional among you become cogs in a great machine, instead of becoming great artists and teachers and scientists, you become financial planners and lawyers and ad-men. The slightly more rebellious among you who were a little less 'with the program' become 'committed', you may become artists and teachers and scientists, but rather than learn and discover, you become socially committed in manners that subordinate your individuality to larger movements - you embrace religion whole-heartedly, whether you buy wholeheartedly into the monotheistic religions or even pagan religions, or into the allegedly 'new' religions of libertarianism, anarchism, communism, intersectionalism, postmodernism, and all their various incarnations, it is religion, and it is a tumor. We all have these tumors within us, but some, like liberalism and feminism can be much more benign, but even these, when infected by these other isms, can grossly metastasize into something that attacks the whole societal body.
When I was ever so slightly younger, I was truly furious about all this. It felt like we were going off a cliff, and I was doing my small part to yell at, and unfortunately in retrospect, to bully others to try to keep the country from going off it. Much good it obviously did. Now, we've gone off, and the anger that once was mine has transferred to the souls of others. In the wake of this revolutionary era when the societal changes are truly dizzying, I have to leave the anger to others. Nothing is served by being angry. All that remains for me now is a certain sadness that people are chasing societal possibilities that cannot ever be.
And as I do this podcast more, what I realize is that the point of it is as best one can precisely not to editorialize on politics, but simply to try and record cultural movements as they are, and as best one can, to try to understand why people come to the conclusions they do, and while not to view it through the now-ideologized term, empathy, at least view them with sympathy. One famous musician put it like this: be aristocrats in art, but democrats in life, and as best one can, don't judge people too harshly for coming to a different point of view than yours. It's not just that it's uncharitable, it's also boring. Inveighing against the excesses of ideological movements is not just incredibly tiresome for the listener, it's also tiresome for the talker. What I've come to realize as I've just barely matured is that it's much, much more intellectually satisfying to trace people's thoughts to their roots and do one's best to understand why people believe what they believe. Whether or not I agree or disagree is, in some sense at least, immaterial to any subject at hand, and the more I do this podast, I realize that the by keeping the editorial voice to a minimum about politics, the more extremely I can editorialize when it comes to works of art, which I think is i a hundred times more interesting than politics on its most exciting day. We live in an age when everything is interpreted through the distorting lens of ideology, so rather, as so many people today do, than making political movements the lens through which we judge art, let's make art the lens through which we judge politics and the world.
But at the same time, 'as best one can' doesn't mean that you leave your opinions behind. What we think is what we think, and I suppose that part of the reason I do this podcast is because it goes without saying that I just so happen to believe that I see the world at least a little bit more clearly than most people do. That doesn't necessarily mean I'm more perceptive, and certainly there are all manner of ways in which the vast majority of people are much more intelligent than I am. But when it comes to seeing the things of the world in the context of the other things of the world, I do think I do a reasonably good job of it. I've gotten plenty wrong over the years, but unlike most people, I keep a very long tab of where I've been wrong and do what I can to scrupulously admit it. When I think of how bad I predicted things would get in the next year, I feel a little humiliated, like I'm histrionic boy who cries wolf at the sight of a puppy chihuahua. But history never stops, and even if the world shakes to nowhere near the extent I worried it would so far, who can deny that it's shaking very hard?
Politically, I suppose it goes without saying that I'm not of the Right, I'm certainly not of the Left - and I'm reminded more of that every day, but I'm not really a person of the center either. I'm a centrist in the sense that I find ideologies in general to be loathesome things that destroy people's independence of mind, but ideologies are poison because they warp people's individuality, not the people themselves. By pointing trollish and angry fingers at individual people rather than the intellectual forces that warp them, and I still won't sugarcoat that word, I've become the intolerance of which I'm so intolerant. As best we can, we have to understand each other, especially when we disagree. The only alternative to greater sympathy is greater hostility, which can only end in violence.
But yet again, greater sympathy for some; or if you insist on that unfortunate word of this era: greater empathy for some, requires greater hatred of others. If the heart guides the head through this world, then there is no check on the passions they inspire, and they can inspire anything at all. The only 'ism' to which I will ever subscribe is liberalism, because liberalism is the politics of freedom, the freedom to be a free individual who can both pursue what he values and help others to do the same; ergo, the freedom from being dictated to by any other ism. If that means making alliances with other isms, I have no problem with that, and I will do my very best to never judge too harshly those who subscribe elsewhere, even if I will never do the same. As a liberal, I will do my best to realize that your beliefs are your own affair. I will judge a little more harshly, however, if people use those 'isms' in the name of curtailing freedom. What I try to be, and what I wish more people did, is not to be a mushy centrist that takes the middle tack between any two extremes, no matter how weird or dumb, but a relentlessly critical and analytical liberal that both mercilessly critiques ideas for what is lacking in them, and also happily acknowledges those places where these new and old ideas get things very right.
So here we are in 2018. Change has moved so quickly that none of us have stopped feeling whiplash since two years ago; but change has been a fact of our lives since the moment we were born. My mini-generation, the supposed X-ennials, were born into the Cold War. The Soviet Union ended just as we reached sentience, and a few years later, the world decamped to the internet. My father's parents had something at least resembling an arranged marriage and grew up reading by candlelight, when I was a kid in the 80's, they barely ever drove over thirty miles an hour and couldn't figure out a microwave or a VCR. Imagine what they would make of an i-Phone or Facebook or Occulus Rift.
Can anybody argue, though, that in the last three-and-a-half years or so, the pace of change has redoubled yet again? Already in February of 2015, a good friend of mine and I both saw this change as it was happening and said that the world was about to undergo something earthshakingly different, and certainly nothing has happened since then to convince me otherwise. We both agreed that a new air began in September 2014 with the assassination of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. This isn't the episode to get into the specifics of police violence or its racial disparities, the point of mentioning the Michael Brown affair in this podcast is the social media involved in its spread: youtube, twitter, facebook. Not Fox News, not Talk Radio, not even the Drudge Report, could keep up with the Hands Up Don't Shoot message spreading through the 'resistance internet' like wildfire. Critical mass had been reached, and for good or bad, a counterweight to the top-down right wing media which dominated America for a generation had been created - a grassroots, bottom up, system of political resistance messaging that didn't seem to need anyone to control the message, if anything, its narrative was self controlling, because each commentator to gain notoriety did so by spreading a message more extreme than any which someone had suggested before. It is resistance fever. Everything since that moment, in retrospect, feels a bit foreordained.
Eric Hoffer, one of the great American thinkers and aphorists, of course, has a long and choice quote for this moment in history from his most famous book: The True Believer. It's so apropos that we're only going to get to the first half of it this week.
The militant man of words prepares the ground for the rise of a mass movement: 1) by discrediting the prevailing creeds and institutions and detatching from them the allegiance of the people; 2) by indirectly creating a hunger for faith in the hearts of those who cannot live without it, so that when the new faith is preached it [inspires] an eager response among the disillusioned masses; 3) by furnishing the doctrine and the slogans of the new faith; 4) by undermining the convictions of the "better people" - those who can get along without faith--so that when the new fanaticism makes its appearance they are without the capacity to resist it. They see no sense in in dying for convictions and principles, and yield to the new order without a fight.
Thus, when the irreverent intellectual has done his work: "The best lack all conviction/while the worst are full of passionate intensity./Surely some revelation is at hand,/Surely the second coming is at hand.
The stage is now set for fanatics.I'm sure almost all of you recognize the stanza from Yeats's poem 'The Second Coming.' But is there anything, anything at all, that is more prevalent in today's America than lack of faith in our institutions? This is the country that was at the forefront of guaranteeing civil rights to women, immigrants, and workers, and lest you think that so much of the rest of the world does all of that better, it would do you well to remember how recent a phenomenon that is, and if many countries have now excelled us in civil rights, they would have never known how without the United States' example. We are the country of the GI Bill and land-grant colleges, the Homestead Act of 1862 which sold hundreds millions of acres to millions of people in poverty. We are the country that innovated Food and Drug regulation and environmental protection, Social Security and Medicare, built and maintained roads and broadcasting networks that cross an entire continent. Put the first man on the Moon and as a result developed all the computer technology we now take for granted. We bled hundreds of thousands to end slavery and defeat all manner of totalitarianism. However many student loans our generation has, our government still provides us with the means to go to college. However hard it is to live with a disability, the government still gives us money to live and has any number of equal opportunity laws that are enforced. However much we may need more of it, we have universal public education, we have food stamps, we have regulations for toxic chemicals, we have minimum wage, we have family leave, national parks, copyright and patent law, labor protections if you go on strike, school lunch programs, protections from pollution for clean air, federal dams, deposit insurance for bank accounts, weather warnings, laws against discrimination, disaster relief, meat and dairy inspection, thousands and thousands of miles of park trail, an engineer corps to run our ports, the world's largest library, safe drinking water, small business loans, the world's safest air traffic control, 39 billion tons of cargo per year, an all-too cautious food and drug administration to keep us safe from poison, 60% of all university research funding, a National Institute of Health that mapped the Human Genome, a National Cancer Institute that's made so many discoveries, government and veteran hospitals that treat millions of people every year.
We have come so far in this part of the world, how can anyone, looking at the history of this country, ever imagine that we cannot come so much further? And all this was not just done by America but by the public subsidy of the United States Government; but you'd never remember that talking to most people today. We only hear when things go wrong, because we have had it so relatively well to the rest of human history that perhaps as of seventy years ago, we became the first society in the history of the world who ever expected that we would live good lives rather than bad ones, and treated it - hopefully rightly - as something we were owed. It's only news if things go wrong, and we are flooded with news as never before. But in the span of time, it is still a blink of an eye since the world was not like this,
But the American Right now lambasts America for allowing the United States government to do all that, and the American Left now lambasts America for not doing still doing still much much more. As Bill Clinton said, there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America. And yet the one thing the two sides of American life seem to agree on is that they want nothing more than a revolution -- to tear it all down and start all over. And the more they agitate for it, the more successful they grow. The desire to see a society fail is self-fulfilling. All you have to do is refuse to get enough people to refuse to make it work. If you get a fifteen million people on either side of American discourse to say that 'our government is inherently evil', you significantly deplete us of our civil service: our teachers, our inspectors, our public servants, and our government becomes something much closer to inherently evil, which then convinces another fifteen million on either side.
The old me would look at all those millions of you who believe all that and say 'what a crew of monsters.' Because we all find it very difficult to let our old selves go.
Anyway, let's continue:
The tragic figures in the history of a mass movement are often the intellectual precursors who live long enough to see the downfall of the old order by the action of the masses.
The impression that mass movements, and revolutions in particular, are born of the resolve of the masses to overthrow a corrupt and oppressive tyranny and win for themselves freedom of action, speech and conscience has its origin in the din of words let loose by the intellectual originators of the movement in their skirmishes with the prevailing order. The fact that mass movements as they arise often manifest less individual freedom than the order they supplant, is usually ascribed to the trickery of a power-hungry clique that kidnaps the movement at a critical stage and cheats the masses of the freedom about to dawn. Actually, the only people cheated in the process are the intellectual precursors. They rise against the established order, deride its irrationality and incompetence, denounce its illegitimacy and oppressiveness, and call for freedom of self-expression and self-realization. They take it for granted that the masses who respond to their call and range themselves behind them crave the same things. However, the freedom the masses crave is not freedom of self-expression and self-realization, but freedom from the intolerable burden of an autonomous existence. They want freedom from "the fearful burden of free choice," freedom from the arduous responsibility of realizing their intellectual selves and shouldering the blame for the blemished product. They do not want freedom of conscience but faith -- blind, authoritarian faith. They sweep away the old order not to create a society of free and independent men, but to establish uniformity, individual anonymity and a new structure of perfect unity. It is not the wickedness of the old regime they rise against but its weakness; not its oppression but its failure to hammer them together into one solid, mighty whole. The persuasiveness of the intellectual demagogue consists not so much in convicting people of the vileness of the established order as in demonstrating its helpless incompetence. The immediate result of a mass movement usually corresponds to what the people want. They are not cheated in the process.
The reason for the tragic fate which almost always overtakes the intellectual midwives of the mass movement is that, no matter how much they preach and glorify the united effort, they remain essentially individualists. They believe in the possibility of individual happiness and the validity of individual opinion and initiative. But once a movement gets rolling, power falls into the hands of those who have neither faith in, nor respect for, the individual. And the reason they prevail is not so much that their disregard of the individual gives them a capacity for ruthlessness, but that their attitude is in full accord with the ruling passion of the masses.So never mind Mass Movements of the Right. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we have seen right-wing Mass Movement after Movement every few years for the last fifty - fundamentalist Christian, pro-business libertarian, military-industrial neoconservative, they're such a fact of our lives that we take them for granted. To do justice to it that has to be the subject of many podcasts. But in the last decade, we have seen something unprecedented in the lifetimes of anyone who was not alive in the 1930's. Five mass movements of the Left in a single decade: the Obama campaign, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Bernie Sanders campaign, and Me Too. I don't even think the Sixties can compare with this proliferation. Such a proliferation is only possible in a generation too young to remember the Soviet Union and therefore much more anxious than past generations to make their fondest dreams of progress a reality.
So what, ultimately, have these mass movements accomplished? In the case of the Obama campaign, a whole damn lot, but not at all what Obama's fondest cheerleaders hoped for. Obama is easily the most consequential president since Reagan or even Johnson, or maybe even any President since Roosevelt. In the opinion of the more liberal half of this country he was a much better President than Reagan and without LBJ's glaring flaws. And perhaps still more important than Obama's effect on the present is his effect on the American and world future, not, as many suppose, by his unique identity, but by articulating a political philosophy of liberalism, or as he often put it, communitarianism, as no President, even FDR or Kennedy, ever did. Just listen to a brief quote from Richard Hofstadter, another great mid-century American liberal thinker, about Roosevelt and precisely where Franklin Roosevelt was lacking.
Franklin D. Roosevelt stands out among the statesmen of modern American liberalism--and indeed among all statesmen since Hamilton--for his sense of the failure of tradition, his recognition for the need of novelty and daring. His capacity for innovation in practical measures was striking, and the New Deal marked many deviations in the American course, but his capacity for innovation in ideas was far from comparable; he was neither systematic nor consistent, and he provided no clearly articulated break from the inherited faith. Although it has been said repeatedly that we need a new conception of the world to replace the ideology of self-help, free enterprise, competition, and benevolent cupidity upon which Americans have been nourished since the foundation of the Republic, no new conceptions of comparable strength have taken root and no statesman with a great mass following has arisen to propound them.It took another sixty years and nearly a second Great Depression to find it, but we finally got Obama in the absolute nick of time.
So what was this philosophy which Obama articulated? It is the Communitarian philosophy - not social justice per se and certainly not intersectionality, but nor is it unrelated to them. The idea that the individual cannot exist without being defined by the community in which he, she, and they live. Just think of Obama's address to the UN Assembly in 2014:
We choose hope over fear. We see the future not as something out of our control, but as something we can shape for the better through concerted and collective effort.Or the 2016 Democratic Convention which marries social justice with patriotism:
I see Americans of every party, every background, every faith who believe that we are stronger together: black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American; young, old; gay, straight; men, women, folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance under the same proud flag to this big, bold country that we love. That's what I see. That's the America I know!Or his farewell address:
The long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some.This insistence, not necessarily for social justice, but for social action, is very new. I think that if you search the speeches of FDR or JFK or LBJ, you will find plenty calls to community responsibility, but you will not find calls to - and notice how Obama upends a conservative idea - to make freedom for all the End of History. It is an insistence on social justice, but it's social justice as a uniquely American goal that embraces the idea that America is a good place, a force for progress, a place that has easily done more to drive the worldwide push for freedom for all than any other place in the world history. Even at its best, America always had a messianic call to exceptionalism, and Obama, contrary to what so many conservatives and moderates allege, was very much in line with it. The difference is that he pushed that exceptionalism to a degree that embraced all humans of all kinds.
Now individual freedom has been so part and parcel of the American experience that it cannot be overemphasized how radical a break with American history it is, and while conservatives are wrong that this communitarian outlook is commensurate with authoritarianism, they sensed in their bones that this would render their conception of American life obsolete. Was opposition to Obama based in part on racism? Of course! But racism is also an ideology, and only a part of a much larger worldview that sees nothing wrong with the individual rights of one man trampling on the rights of other millions. And this is how, in this Second Gilded Age, the top 1% of America possesses 40% of the nation's wealth, while the bottom 80% has 7% of the nation's wealth. The top 1% of the nation wealth holders have more disposable income than the bottom 90%.
Republicans will allege that ultimately, America still has a very high standard of living, and it's not exactly wrong. Just to take one common Republican statistic, if the income of Black America were its own country, it would still be somewhere around the 20th richest country in the world - now, mind you, in raw purchasing power, Black America is quite a bit lower down the list. But if there is a relatively high standard of living for roughly 2/3rds to 4/5ths of this country, that can only be true by acquiring staggering debt - not just the $20ish trillion of national debt which everybody always talks about, but, more immediately, the nearly $40ish trillion of personal debt. We've let everyone in this country borrow on credit and loan rather than fix the financial inequalities, and if we keep that going indefinitely, there will be a seizmic shock that will propel us straight into an irredeemable third world living standard that could take centuries to rebuild. Bernie Sanders is not all wrong, if this country is to survive as a place worth defending for the 22nd century, then there has to be a titanic financial reckoning in which there is a breathtaking wealth redistribution. If that's not possible, then neither is American experiment as something worth continuing.
Obama as a phenomenon bought America a new lease on life that makes America worth defending even in the Era of Trump and quite possibly well past it. But no matter what the Left now thinks of Obama, it's worth remembering how often the Left fell out of and back in love with Obama as time went on, and I believe that that's because, as a mass movement, Obama was a colossal disappointment to them. The cliche that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose could not have been more true than in Obama's case. Obama was never going to be able to deliver on his promise to unite the country, because his philosophy of communal responsibility - which appealed so much to liberals and progressives and even socialists, was so unbelievably out of step with any thought a conservative person would ever think. In the wake of eight years of George W. Bush, Obama rode a wave of Leftist rage utterly justified rage mind you, and turned that rage into hope. He promised them a more hopeful future, and must have known to an enormous extent that that promise was empty.
I voted for Obama in the '08 primary because I found some of Hillary Clinton's tactics against Obama to be unconscionable - particularly her not very subtle insistence that Obama was in danger of being assassinated, which sounded not quite unlike an incitement to assassination, one not completely unlike Donald Trump's many incitements in 2016 for fanatics to assassinate her. But I was not particularly crazy about Obama in 2008, I saw Obama's campaign as an irrational mass movement, which was what so many people loved about it. But Obama was a completely different President than he was a candidate, and the realism that most left-of-liberals hated in Obama's governing philosophy was precisely what I loved - a determination to wring every social change that was possible out of the existing framework, while realizing that transforming American society beyond recognition was impossible without destroying something that is still very much worth preserving.
When, by 2011, that transformative promise people saw in Obama was clearly not fulfilled against that wall of political, intellectual, and yes, utterly racist, resistance from a monolithic Republican coalition, new mass movements of the Left were formed, each of them a long suppressed howl of rage; barely tempered by any hope that American life will ever get better, and therefore determined to take what so many Americans are determined not to give. So far, there have been four of these movements, there will probably be many more.
We'll talk about those four next week, and I have a sinking feeling we're going to be covering this subject for quite a while.