Radical Centrism Papers: It’s War. No Less Pt 3
My last two posts HERE and HERE, about fighting against the breakdowns in our political dialogue and institutional crises in our country have drawn a lot of comment and criticism, especially on Facebook. I have decided to handle that in a “Reader Feedback blog” in my next post. But first I want to finish the series as originally planned.
In spite of perceptions (and accusations) by many — particularly on the right — my purpose has not to been to blame one side or the other, even if I feel one side has contributed more to the crisis. I believe, we as Americans from every angle, have helped spawn the crisis, and it is up to us to try and fix it.
… two elements of our national psyche played an outsized role: the loss of faith over the last 50 years, in our institutions and the American hero myth that has had extraordinary cultural currency since even the 1940’s.
The purpose of this post is to ask, all of us, how we participated in bringing our beloved U.S. democracy to the crisis we face in 2018. I focus on two elements of our national psyche that have played an outsized part in the making our current predicament: the loss of faith over the last 50 years, in our institutions as well as the American hero myth that has had extraordinary cultural currency since even the 1940’s. Let me explain…
The fragility of our institutions not materialize out of the ether with the Donald Trump candidacy; it didn’t start with the Republican Congress; it didn’t start with Obama, or Gingrich, or the Clintons, or Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater or Lyndon Johnson. It traces back to an era that many of us may remember fondly: the simultaneous breakout of the youth culture, the civil rights struggle, and resistance to the Viet Nam War in the 1960’s. I myself was a happy warrior during that time. I remember with pride the mass demonstrations that achieved long-deferred, lasting results in civil rights, ended the Vietnam War, and opened up U.S. culture to new ideas. But, for our American culture, this breakthrough of “progress” was definitely a double-edged sword.
The biggest successes of the 60’s came with defying what had been American institutions and culture of political consensus. The defiance of norms helped lay bare its defense of racism in the name of governing and the dishonesty and insularity of its conduct of foreign policy. Conservatives tended to defend and honor these institutions and the “consensus” that produced them — probably not as much because they believed every stitch of them, but because they believed in restraint and tradition. Going all the way back to the founding of our country, there has been an attempt within our system of checks and balances to evenly balance the tension between the current/modern and the traditional/stable. So as the baby boomers piled success on success by changing attitudes and policies on these issues, there came a rising backlash of those who considered their defense of the American norms as a patriotic act. At the same time, those conservatives found it hard to respect the brash youngsters or accommodate their demand for a “place at the table.” The continuing rift in our culture has never been mended — either by ‘talking it out,’ or by concessions of respect from either side.
Elements of that rift that carry on today in our country: partisans of both sides of that rift speak different languages, different truths; an unwarranted arrogance of the educated, including especially a disrespect for less-educated adults. Equally, rural conservatives demonstrate disdain of liberal “snowflakes.” The left views police/FBI/CIA as potentially bad actors in the fight for social justice. The right defends those institutions as upholders of the law (until Trump). Liberal thinkers distrust of our political leadership to conduct honorable, humanistic foreign policy while conservatives’ believe in projecting military power for national security. The eventual revelation that the US foreign policy was more defense of national corporate interests “by any means necessary” than our national ideal of democracy and human rights was outrageous to Democrats, but standard principles of statecraft to Republicans. The endless war between these factions, each trying to write their own versions of history, in each venue, each election, each debate is a basis of our partisanship. But ominously, the gradual acceptance by all factions that our political integrity, our rule of law, and our institutions have become corrupted are leading to a much more serious and present dangers for our unique republic.
There’s another part of the story: a most popular narrative that was wildly successful with BOTH sides of our politics. It was a tradition that that dated back to the movies of 1940’s and that defined America in our own eyes, and in the eyes of the world: the American Hero-myth. This myth was not cynically imposed by political strategists; instead it was a mass media reflection of what Americans thought (and think) it meant to be American… and we, all of us, were completely taken with it. This is the story of the silent cowboy who rides into town as an loner, a stranger living his life “above” the rest of the citizenry: the frightened townspeople, the ineffective sheriff, the evil, monopolistic rancher and his gang, With every element of society failing and apparently incapable of recognizing a truth that the hero sees clearly, this single individual risks his well-being to right every wrong, mete out fair justice, and take the destiny of the town into his own hands. Miraculously, he succeeds, and delivers the town back to the townspeople before riding off into the sunset. The myth has enjoyed almost transfixing power over our imaginations — even though it’s not a stretch to suggest it is demonstrably untrue at least 99% of the time (usually, such a “hero” dies)!
Culturally, the hero-individual writ large was repeated by filmmakers from the 40’s on through the 60’s as the Western became the predominant movie type the world around. The myth was picked up by Ayn Rand and her re-telling of the tale as a political parable. It must also be said that the movie stars of this fantasy world often became convinced that it was true, and they were the embodiment of it. Truth be told, it’s a seductive, Walter Mitty-type myth that can occur most frequently as a fantasy of the imagination.
As filmmakers turned away from the Western, the hero-myth remained persistent with ALL of us to our modern era: it started as Randolph Scott riding tall in the saddle, then the commanding John Wayne, and then Clint Eastwood the nameless loner of the Spaghetti Westerns. When the Western became tired, the same myth (sometimes the same movie stars) morphed into police dramas like French Connection, Dirty Harry and others where the “true” police are iconoclasts: always bucking the bureaucracy to protect the citizenry. We saw spies like James Bond with a “license to kill,” then Bruce Willis and his enduring John McClain character, then modern chase dramas of Taken and Jason Bourne. The myth never dies! We love him.
Movie makers in the recent era started placing super “tough guy” quotes as symbols of the hero’s willingness to break every rule to do the right thing. Make my Day… Hasta la Vista, Baby… Yippee Ki-Yay Mother***ker… The man we worshipped was a righteous badass who told it like it was.
So, does all this begin to remind you of a certain president? Does the dismissal of institutions, the necessity for “outside the law,” operation, the iconoclastic “tell it like it is” slogans (often in simplistic catch phrases) begin to paint a picture of our own complicity in the rise of this kind of leadership? Surface symbolism and a kind of put-on “tough guy talk” have seemed to be what Trump thought being an American President was about. Many, myself included, originally thought that these symbolic actions were a kind of “shadow play” that reflected some kind of real agenda. But after a year, I am beginning to suspect that there actually may be little beneath the surface. But for his fans, his symbolic actions have triggered a compelling narrative, painting a picture of a very successful American Hero President, cleaning up the injustices of the world. Trump may not have understood the Presidency or our constitution, but he is a master of the power of narrative…
Tolstoy, in his great novel War and Peace, devotes a hundred or so pages to describing the “great men,” theory of history — and critiquing it as an utter falsehood. For Tolstoy, these “great men” were actually just being bobbed along on a current of history already determined by great cultural changes. He postulated, for instance, that the invasion of Russia by Napoleon was predetermined by the Russian fascination — especially in the upper classes — with French language, French culture, French education, that had been happening for decades.
I have found myself more and more accepting of Tolstoy’s non-intuitive basic premise as I have aged. And I find it particularly relevant to our current politics. It seems to me almost without dispute that our cultural acceptance of institutional distrust as well as our transfixed fascination with the cowboy hero-myth prefigured by many years our current crisis of politics and government. What were those 60’s activists doing other than playing out in their time, the story of those cowboys who had such a complete confidence in their own ability to know justice?
So, another question: if we accept this theory as truth, what functional good does it do us? Well, we must understand that “the center cannot hold,” when everyone is attacking institutions of functioning government. Good people from both sides must spend some energy defending that center. By examining the basis of the hero-myth, we also discover its logical outcome in governance: everybody thinks they themselves perceive true justice — without reference to any other view. No further negotiation needed. For our proto-fuhrer, it’s a matter of the power, or the gun, to impose that pure justice on everyone else — Cowboy Justice. Acknowledging to ourselves that the hero-myth is a relatively short step away from turning our government over to an authoritarian regime, may gain us a foothold on what is important: our lost (but recoverable) reliance on conversation, compromise, respect and relative consensus in the conduct of our government.
In reality, truth and facts are a kind of human teamwork — much like the scientific method depends upon repeated thinking and proving of “the truth” in order to perfect it. People share their perceptions, bring evidence to bear on those perceptions, try to find ways of accommodating other viewpoints in a shared universe, and, if necessary, try to reach consensus about how to react to the “truth” they have jointly discovered. If you think about it, this is how a small neighborhood or tribe acts, whether they recognize it as a strict “democracy” or not. This is real life, not a fantasy. For a movie version of this reality, It’s a Wonderful Life is a lot closer to truth than Dirty Harry.