Sunday, July 04, 2010

America, the Poisoned: Hold These Truths to Be Self-Inflicted, by Charles P. Pierce

The truths are supposed to be self-evident, even though they weren't at the time, and seem even less so today, as we arrive upon the 234th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a document more criminally misappropriated down through time by intellectual grifters and political mountebanks even than the Book of Revelations. Thomas Jefferson said he wrote it "to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent," which it certainly did not, at least not immediately. And in rousing the spirit that would produce the document, Thomas Paine titled his pamphlet Common Sense, which was more aspirational than it was anything else. This weekend we celebrate, among other things, the ultimate triumph of hope over experience. It is a triumph that currently shows all the signs of being both fragile, which it always was, and temporary, which it always was not. 

There's a poison in the public bloodstream these days, and it's affecting the mind, as poisons will. One entire political party has lost its mind, and well may succeed for having done so. A congressional candidate in Alabama is running commercials equating progressive taxation with slavery and the Holocaust. A candidate for the Senate in Nevada seems to deny any role for a central government short of raising an army, and perhaps not even that, since she seems to suggest that, if the election doesn't go her way, her several followers may go to guns in response. The members of that party in the national legislature have utterly abandoned their duties to the public good for unalloyed obstructionism. On Wednesday, the Senate again failed to pass an extension of unemployment benefits for the first time since the 1950's, and this in a time of 9.5-percent unemployment. The government is unwilling to bring the criminals of the previous administration to justice, and seemingly unable to bring the corporate criminals of the previous decade to justice, either. Some 20,000 barrels of oil are spilling daily into the Gulf of Mexico, where now huge columns of smoke are beginning to rise from the surface of the sea. And maybe it is time to read Revelations with a fresh eye, after all, except for the fact that the horsemen are not unleashed upon us. We invite them in to ride. 

The poison dulls the mind and enervates the body. It leaches away the critical faculties and leaves in their place a kind of dull-eyed acceptance that borders on chronic lassitude. We accept what we cannot change and then decide we can't really change anything, and thereupon, we accept anything. A political party that embraces public lunacy in its candidates, and public dereliction in its elected officials, should pay a political price for that. It will not, because the only people motivated at the moment are the people who are motivated in support of the lunacy and, in fact, who would like to see more of it. And they may well do so. Instead, we study the lunacy as if it were a phenomenon detached from our daily lives, the way that we have detached ourselves from the discipline and responsibilities of self-government, congratulating ourselves on how fair-minded we are for giving the lunatics a hearing and then becoming mystified when we realize that, if they are empowered in the government, they mean to do what they say. 

An unemployment rate that nudges 10 percent should occasion societal upheaval. Instead, we give a polite hearing to responsible "moderates" who argue that it's pretty much the way it's going to be for a while, and to conservative voices telling us that the unemployed are simply entitled parasites, drowning in indulgence and flat-screen TV's. And we congratulate ourselves for being broad-minded enough not to call an obscenity what it is out loud. In a properly functioning, self-governing republic, the corporate criminality that nearly brought down the economies of the world, and the corporate criminality that has turned the Gulf of Mexico into flaming toxic stew, would demand a vigorous political response. But, generally, we accept the notion that the latter would be impractical, that it essentially would be requiring one conjoined twin to beat the other one over the head. 

That this is a mortal sin against what we are supposed to be, a primary heresy against the American faith, is lost on us. (James Madison thought corporations as inimical to self-government as organized religion, and Tom Paine hated them as much as he hated George III.) Instead, we channel what outrage we have into sub-comic spectacles — idiots in tricornered hats, spouting off about the founders, the crackpot Glenn Beck's pretending to be Paine, who would've eaten his liver and asked for sauce. Comfortable with oligarchy and comforted that we are We and not They, we bestir ourselves only to be mean and vengeful. We bestir ourselves, when we bestir ourselves, to be proud of our ignorance, vain in our rootless delusions, and vaunting in our sad pretensions. 

But that is not the poison. The poison is the wars. 

War was not theoretical for the founders. War was fifty miles away from them, and closing in fast. War had been made upon them in New England long before they got around to making war back again. War was why they distrusted standing armies, and why, when they got around to writing a Constitution, they placed the power of declaring it in the diffuse institution of the legislature rather than concentrating it in the executive. This is another principle that we've fairly well abandoned. We have two of them ongoing, their purposes now more vague than ever, and their outcomes increasingly ill-defined. They alternate weirdly in the public mind. Afghanistan seems to be the primary concern again, what with loose-tongued generals and all. But, while we have two wars going, we are not a nation at war. We ceded that responsibility in 2001, when we were told that all we really had to do was go to the mall. If we took our responsibilities seriously, we would have been insulted by that, and someone would have paid a political price. Instead, we found ourselves lied into a second war, which really should have shaken up the politics, and we responded by reelecting the liars, because that was the course of least resistance. Now, Iraq is said to be more stable, but Afghanistan is going to be the long, bloody slog, which was the reverse of what we were being told five years ago. This should occasion some general soul-searching as to just what in the hell we are trying to accomplish in either place — a Fulbright committee for the new millennium — but our political participation in our wars is just the same as our political participation in everything else: empty, exhausted, and vicarious. 

If we can be at war this way, how much easier is it for us to walk away from our responsibilities as regards the economy, the environment, and other things that are harder to understand? If we can accept Afghanistan as a semi-permanent drain on our resources and our souls, it's easy to accept a 10-percent unemployment rate as the dismal status quo, as the way things ought to be. The truths are no longer self-evident. We've done too good a job of hiding them from ourselves, and ourselves from them. But their terms are still plain, and they are still firm. After 234 years, if we ever truly engaged our heritage and its full implications, we'd scare ourselves to death.

~ Charles Pierce, for Esquire Magazine, July 2, 2010

Those are Pobble Thoughts and dear Goddess, I wish Pobble Words. That and a buck fifty will get you coffee.


appsrus said...

I have been surprised in the absence of comment. A powerful read, for which I will look toward the source so that I too may copy and distribute to some of like mind. Those of unlike mind would be at the least displeased, as well they should be.

Thank you and Bravo....

BostonPobble said...

Appsrus ~ "At the least displeased." What a lovely way of putting it. You're very welcome. Always.