Saturday, February 10, 2018

Moving Around the Deck Chairs, Because We're Not Prepared to Face the Facts

There is an everyday scandal in the WH, everyday the administration hands more and more of the country to the oligarchs, and what is left of our faire land is now "deregulated" for profit. The crisis before us is America's deeper failure of character, a reckoning with our shadow that may never happen. But we may yet bring about a pause that thwarts the current disaster and _appears_ to address our more serious problems.   We must make sure that everyday reveals another Trump scandal.   Fatiguing as that is, it must be part of our daily bread to make sure that their trespasses remain unforgiven.

The Obama Presidency demonstrated perfectly just how far we are from considering our nation's real divides and needs, and the deeper issue at stake is our national shadow. No matter amount of virtue in the White House will "fix" that. But we must address surely our venality, at least insofar as we attempt to thwart its advance.

Our immediate solution is not a "revolution." Sorry, but we did that and _this_ is what we have to show for it. A revolution may sound appealing to some but it is a losing strategy for practical electoral victories. Those kinds of victories ---pyrrhic and hollow as they may be--- are what I think we need _first_. Further, revolutions destroy things and that's the wrong idea. We have enough destruction. The best solution would be realization, not revolution, but we are not prepared for that.

Our temporary electoral solution is right before our eyes and that does not depend on any deeper reckoning with the American heart. We may indeed be able to oust the villains by virtue of mere discontent and rage, without any unified claim to political values, much less virtue. "Stop Trump" may well be enough to wrest the power to slow down this fast lane to catastrophe. We may talk a better game than mere anger and rage but those emotions may be enough for now.  Of course, we may actually rouse enough anger that we never come near our real issues but only set them back.  But we don't have in place any of the structures we would need to address our real issues. The right doesn't want that conversation because it represents the old forms of privilege and entitlement to which they desperately cling and the left is failing because it refuses to admit that virtue does indeed require individual assessment as much as it does structural change.

I would not be opposed to some kind of victory _first_. By that I mean a directive of the electorate to send Trumpism further back into its bunkers of ignorance and into the darkness that is its natural habitat. Let the Balrog go back to its lair. There may be no better remedy for now. As for us, I say "run, you fools" towards some kind of temporary safety until we can do better. We can talk about the hard work from wherever we stand.  None of this will stop the abusers or the racists because our victory will, in fact, energize them too. But we might outnumber them if the system is not so rigged that it just fails to represent the majority. That could happen. Our strategy would not provide real hope because hope requires a future in which there is change--- and real change requires real reckoning. In the meantime I think we should take _any_ level of pause and reprieve that grants us at least three more years of life.

No, I don't think Mueller's report --- even if it demonstrates obstruction, perjury, money laundering, or treason--- will move Republicans to act. Get it through your heads: _nothing_ is too debased or too corrupt or too morally bankrupt for the likes of Ryan, McConnell, and all the rest who want reelection and power. Not Collins, not Murkowski, none of them. The bar for them cannot be too low to protect Trump because they are Trump and without Trump they will be replaced by Trump. Hannity will decide their choices. So unless 2018 brings electoral change, expect things to become much worse, much more rapidly. Is that even possible? We need a short term strategy because the cure is truly beyond our national reach. If we buy time will the more honest reckoning begin?

No, it will not.  Like I said, that requires the kind of hard work that no one likes.  We keep trying to make school “fun” when a lot of it demands plenty that is just hard.  It all depends on what you want.  And by “school” I mean both school and whatever it is that gives you the skills and the aptitude to do something worthwhile.  Excellent things are rare because they are difficult, ask Spinoza.

Our "ultimate" answer is a process for realization, not revolution. That realization is one of values and claims, the ideals and birthright aspirations that have never been realized.  But they have been articulated by philosophers, statesmen, poets, thinkers of all sorts and kinds. Those goals are fundamentally secular, human, and so fraught with failure and foible under the best of circumstances.  The people who present us with our ideals, like those who invite us to the hard work, need those things as much as the rest of us because they too have to live with themselves.  And living with yourself, well, that should be hard too.  Sorry.  For those of you looking for an ultimate solution, you've come to the wrong planet.  Or you can just retreat to some inner “state.”

The slaveholder Jefferson offered up much of that secular ultimacy theory; the incrementalist Lincoln looked for a new birth of freedom. And MLK stood on the mountaintop looking ahead, hoping and believing. But we will not have realization, or any proximate ultimacy, without reckoning the shadow. It's not the light we must search for, it's what the light allows us to see, the shadows it outlines more plainly. There can be no redemption and no real change without coming to terms with the facts of history; inequities can change only when we are willing to have the difficult conversations. America has no stomach for seriousness, much less for learning or addressing the difficult tasks of personal and community self-interrogation.

Our national shadow begins right around 1619 with the first settlements that commence the pogrom of the native peoples and introduces as legal the inexcusable crime of slavery. The implications of those _founding_ actions cast long shadows that require an incandescence of truth that requires us to burn far more brightly. And then, once we are willing to burn inside, we would require the maturity not to burn down the outside. Literally. When you know the truth, it makes you mad.  How could it not?  But there is even more that would have to happen _just to begin_ our national reckoning.

Our collective shadow also requires us to take seriously the fact that _under the best of circumstances_ the American notion of identity never fails to invest in tribal ethnic communalisms, religions that divide and claim moral superiority, and actions that prefer the familiar rather than Statue of Liberry ideals. What we say we want or stand for is not enough yet to change our familiar patterns and historical structures.   This is a human situation, not just a problem endemic to we Americans: its easier to take care of your own than to imagine that your own is everyone else too.

We can describe at any length these failures in terms of individual responsibilities or of collective and structural inequities--- but at the heart of the matter involves deeper issues of character and human nature. We might well have to defy our human nature in order to recast our character, even to come _near_ to our aspirational values. In fact, I'm pretty sure that is exactly what we would have to want. To be the humans we _say_ we want to be we would have to admit the strife that compels us to be better than how we have been made or how we say we make ourselves. We will not become better human beings by "becoming who we really are" but rather by investing in being more than we are, more than nature or culture has taught us to be.

To nurture those matters of character we must look deeply into human nature and into a long sordid history of failure rooted in the incongruity between who we are and what we say we want to be. Such a conversation puts everything we are familiar with in jeopardy and, more importantly, puts us face to face with irresolvable facts, facts of nature and history. This means that our most humanizing ideals put us in conflict with ourselves and that requires more than an education or achievement or even our best spiritual or religious aspirations. Love is not the answer. Love is another indispensable feature of our pursuit of reckoning with ourselves and that reckoning will include much less pleasant tasks. We're going to need _all_ of ourselves to find _more_ of ourselves. That will force us to make our lesser angels be just as involved in the conversation with our better.

This week we learned that a Rhodes scholar, Harvard educated administration official is a serial abuser and that his church counseled his wife to remain in their marriage. There is no educational achievement or worldly accomplishment that insures decency or virtue of any kind. We also heard heartfelt denials of climate change and raging tirades directed at immigrants ---along with real stories of families being broken up, deportations, and, of course, more about how all this is making America great "again."
We heard plenty more from Evangelical Christians, praying in the Oval Office, talking about Trump getting "a mulligan," and about how ends justify any means, including any admitted abuse, flagrant misogyny, or vulgarity. Where are their values? Have these behaviors always been their values? Does that question, that observation, or this kind of invective about hypocrisy actually matter? What will _change_ people? Not redemption. Not admission of sin. Learning what we need to learn is going to take much harder work than that.

We saw too the minority leader Pelosi make a dramatic effort to draw attention to injustice and to advance the cause of decency only to be largely ignored except by those who already agree with her. But we heard nothing much about the structural facts of history, the need for truthful individual reckonings, or the ways in which our actions inform our values. What we apparently _cannot_ talk about are the ways we would have to change in order to realize ---and by that I mean simply _approximate_ something like our "ultimate" social ideals.

America needs an honest conversation about itself the way sex needed Dr. Ruth. Whatever happened to _that_ conversation? Porn is free tells us what we really need to know about that. We humans are not really interested in what it would take to be an _American_: equity under the rule of law, generosity and compassion for those less able, the birthright of honest work, a living wage, health, children, retirement, old age, and a decent death. I don't say we don't want these things. I say that we are not willing to have the conversation that would _realize_ these ideals . But that doesn't mean we can't have something better soon, or even now.

We can buy time. We can arrest some of the decline and catastrophe even if we cannot stop the end game. If you are serious enough to say that we might be past the point where human life could stop planetary destruction, then you might also be serious enough to do what it takes to buy time and see what more might happen if we just do that. My thesis is simple: we are not prepared to take on the issues that would cause our society to realize its stated aspirations and we are not in a situation in which we may be able to save ourselves at all from planetary self-destruction.

Our solution at present may involve the same lofty optimisms that proclaim our inner goodness or our hope. This doesn't make them true but it might provide some important motivation--- especially for those who have neither the tools nor the willingness to do the actual hard work of self-interrogation. We're not as a society willing or prepared for that hard work: it's a calculus we can't do because we aren't willing to do the simple arithmetic prerequisites.

Our recourse for now is this: use whatever emotional tools and manipulations we have to buy us enough time to survive this destruction. In the meantime, _you_ try to do that work to become a person of deeper reflection and character. Even if you're just buying time. Play music while the deck chairs show you the ship is sinking? Sure. But make sure that the music you are playing is looking for lifeboats too, the kind that don't leave out others.

Maybe, just maybe we'll figure out how to have the more serious conversations we would need to have to create a better world. So far, that is not happening. Electing Democrats will not change my Republican neighbor's hearts or minds ---even if the Dems change their lives for the better with policy. We may have to be "satisfied" with what we can do until we can do what we actually need to do. In the meantime, don't let the villains win, don't give up, figure out how to do what Trump does so well: buy time by pretending or just saying what you need even when you don't have a clue. The difference we might make could be enough to find a lot of lifeboats. Take to the task inside yourself but remember that that requires facing the facts. Time is all we have. Make just a little more for the hard work.