Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Don't Bend With the Wind, ** Be ** the Wind!

While making my annual visit to my college alma mater (which shall remain nameless, to protect innocent and guilty alike), and wandering around the bucolic and eerily quiet (in anticipation of the barbarian hordes about to descend the following week) campus, I had to reflect on a subset – if you will – of the “do history make men or do men make history?” question which I've dealt with extensively in previous posts. This particular subset is of the collective type, and it refers to a specific college in the American Midwest – an area known to be a rich substrate for populism (good) or the “tea party” (bad – according to the mainstream media). (I've also dealt recently with the varieties of populism, so won't repeat myself on that issue.) This school in particular prides itself on being, not just a “trend setter” -- because that sounds, and is, a bit on the superficial and ephemeral side – but in the socio-political vanguard – not just at present, but historically, going back to before the Civil War. (How many small towns have a half dozen Underground Railroad historical sites?) Yes, the narrative – I might say the conceit – is that this particular place has been first and foremost in virtually every significant historical event, movement, process, or phenomenon for over 180 years – with the stipulation that, of course, “significant” is synonymous with “progressive”, “liberal”, “socialist”, “collectivist”, “totalitarian” -- well OK, those last two are implied but not often made specific. It is a place of “gentle persuasion” -- up to a point, beyond which it can descend into a gloves-off hotbed of protest, rallies, and sign-carrying – most of which is open to question, since they are “preaching to the choir” as long as their efforts remain campus-bound.

So yes, this small school in a small town in the Midwest turns out to be the axis mundi – the birthplace... the crucible... the fountainhead... of all that is good, pure, true, and enlightened – by comparison to which all other places must be found wanting. And this virtue is not one of mere assent, oh no! It is the virtue of creativity... of origination... of being indispensable in history. If it were not for this place – or so the myth goes – so much of what we call “progress” would never have occurred, and we would still be mired in the darkness of medievalism, superstition, and countless other political and thought crimes.

Well, that's quite a claim, I must say – and, I hasten to add, it's never made explicit in quite this way, but is strongly implied, to an overwhelming extent, in all “mission statements”, “visions”, and particularly in historical narratives – not to mention the selective memories of both students and faculty. It is, in short, inescapable, whether one is a student there or just passing through (and I have done both). So the question inevitably arises – well, is it true or not? Can something this small exert that much power and influence? And if so, why doesn't it get more credit in the media, and among mainstream historians and political scientists? They have no problem giving Harvard credit for pretty much everything that has ever happened, but this place seldom merits more than a footnote. Is that fair? Or does it reflect reality?

And I'm not even going to try and answer that question. I'd prefer to concentrate on a more grass-roots perspective, as a former student and current observer. What an institution – of any sort – claims, and what its members actually do from day to day, may not always seem to match. My observation as a student was that the other students were being blown about by various political whirlwinds, which made it seem (to them, at least) as if they were “activists” -- i.e. “doing something” -- whereas they were, basically, quite passive and reactive. Not only passive, but, in many cases, infantile. By which I mean rigid, impulsive, dogmatic, and prone to tantrums. Surely this can't have been a hotbed of creativity! When the average emotional age is pre-kindergarten, you're not going to get much more than a herd of intelligent, but brainless, baa-ing sheep – and that's exactly what I saw on a daily basis back then.

But then, where did their political convictions – held with incandescent fervor – come from? Their parents? Doesn't seem likely, especially given the “generation gap” of that era. High school teachers? Maybe, if they had attended one of those “red diaper baby” schools in the New York City area. From books? Mmmmmaybe. (But this assumes they were already well-read when they entered, and I saw scant evidence of that.) Whatever the reason, these characters hit campus on Day One of freshman year already loaded for bear – primed for political activism – thoroughly indoctrinated in the wisdom of Marx, Engels, and Chairman Mao (and probably Stalin too, but it would have been a bit awkward to admit it). They were already fully-formed community organizers, activists, propagandists... really a marvel to behold. But were they creative? Did they have any original ideas? No. They were, basically, political cannon fodder -- “useful idiots” as the saying goes. But did this deter them? Not a bit. They imagined themselves up there on the ramparts, waving a red flag, staring the fascists in the face. (And we have to remember that, not even 20 years after the end of World War II, in which capitalist America had defeated fascist Germany and Italy, fascism and capitalism had conceptually merged in these pea-brains, and become, for all intents and purposes, the same thing.)

I should add, as a sidebar, that although “political correctness” had not yet been so named, it was already standard operating procedure there back in the mid-60s, with any speech that didn't line up properly with Marxist theory being promptly shouted down. This much, at least, has changed very little.

What has changed is the subject matter, or orientation, of the infantile tantrums. And it comes as the latest point in a very long trajectory. In the early days (far before my time), the causes were just even if there has been some self-serving historical revisionism since. Eventually, abolition, racial equality and women's equality morphed into broader progressive causes, which, again, at least had some philosophical and moral validity, not to mention political momentum. In my day (said in a creaky voice punctuated by weak coughing) it was all about the war in Vietnam, the draft, and profiteering – nothing creative or unique about that, but the validity question was never in doubt.

(I would say, regarding the previous discussion, that the causes were better then the people promoting them. It's not that the war in Vietnam wasn't illegal, unjust, and immoral – because it was all of these. It's that the people objecting to it were offering Maoism as a realistic and viable alternative. They still saw the Soviet Union as the shining city on a hill.)

So... what is the issue of the day that has everyone tied in knots and in a state of high hysteria around campus? Why, it's none other than “micro-aggression”, and “triggers”. I've referred, in a previous post, to the fact that our campuses these days are full of pathetic creatures oozing around like eggs with no shells, just waiting to be stepped on or offended in some way. And the rule – conceptually similar to witch hunts – is there is no word, phrase, or action, no matter how apparently harmless or well-intended, that is off limits when it comes to some sad, sick soul reacting to it as if they'd been splashed with burning pitch. Things have gotten to the point where, to quote a recent article by Walter Williams of George Mason University, “30 students and the campus therapy dog [paid, undoubtedly, in “fair trade” wages] retired to a 'safe room' with soft music, crayons and coloring books to escape any uncomfortable facts raised by (a speaker sponsored by the Young Republicans – yes, they do exist there, and I imagine they could all fit into a Smart Car).”

I'm sorry, but students were made of sterner stuff in my day. Yes, they may have been delusional and easily swayed by demagogues, but at least they weren't afraid of their own shadows. Political correctness was in vogue, but the response to “offensive speech” was typically to shout back with something equally offensive, not to curl up in ball on the floor, piteously whimpering.

And what is the response of the powers-that-be on campus to all this? Well, it should be to scrape these people off the floor and send them back home to mama. But no – that would never do. We have to not only “understand” and “accept”, but accommodate – up to and including the providing of special rooms to which the victims can repair in order to recover and heal from the trauma of hearing or seeing something they don't like (including, by the way, things that are part of the curriculum of classes they signed up for). (I hope that, at least, this group doesn't include any political science majors. If so, their career in politics is already over.)

It's tempting to say that this latest (and possibly terminal) madness is the reductio ad absurdum of a long history of liberalism... a final stage of decay. It's true enough that we are seeing the triumph of pure feeling – and not just the emotional will of the majority (nothing new about that) but the pathology of a small minority, which now reigns supreme. And again, it's relevant to ask where this all came from. Were they like that in high school? (Maybe they're suffering from PTSD based on bullying.) Or if not, how soon after they arrived on campus were they infected with this virus – and by whom or what? I suspect (witch hunts again) that it has a lot to do with mass hysteria – the way an idea, or meme, or a way of reacting, spreads through a group for no apparent reason. This is, after all, the basis for many events, both large and small, throughout history, so it can't be discounted. A college campus in a small town is a bit isolated, like the Salem of old... and yet we find this same issue everywhere, including plenty of much larger schools in large cities.

So, again, I say – it's all well and good to be in the vanguard if the cause is just, but that also implies some level of judgment and discernment – and independence of thought. What we're seeing here is certainly a sign of the times, but it has nothing to do with objectivity and everything to do with passivity and fear. It may not be a logical milestone in the decline of liberalism as much as a milestone in the decline of strength of character and common sense. And I would add that what we are seeing is not so much trend setting as a symptom of a larger, society-wide pathology. One has to ask – is this the same society that defeated the Third Reich, and that stared down the Soviet Union? Could anything like this happen today? We're having enough trouble with Iran.

Again, it's the old, weary cycle of history, in which what seem to be trivial weaknesses rise up and become dominant. Even if we allow that America has greatly sinned on the world stage, it is troubling to see things deteriorating in this way. But has any empire handled its decline and fall with dignity? We actually – and ironically – have Russia as an example, and they came out of the Soviet era about as well as anyone could have expected – and better in many ways. Will we have the historical perspective to do likewise, or will we be fighting down to the last man, like the Japanese soldiers who hid out on Pacific islands for decades after V-J Day? Time – as they say – will tell.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Credit Where Credit is Due, Part 2: Not With a Bong But a Whimper

A while back, I pointed out that it's refreshing to see one thing coming out of the Obama administration that makes sense.  Two, actually – or let's say one and one-half. The first is the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba, and the “half” is the easing (but not total elimination – at least not yet) of prosecutorial zeal directed at users of marijuana. And some will say, well, this is, at long last, the “real Obama” -- returning to his roots as a community organizer, radical, liberal, outsider. Because, after all, six years in, what does he have to lose? He can offend anyone he wants to (and usually does) and get away with it, because he won't be running for office again, and maybe he wants to make a statement – especially one that will serve as contrast to his “inevitable” successor, namely Hillary Clinton, AKA Big Nurse. Maybe he simply wants to say that he hasn't totally sold out to the white male establishment. Whatever. I'd rather someone did the right thing for the wrong reasons than continue to do the wrong thing for whatever reasons. And in terms of the political and cultural distortions that have been a chronic infection in this society for decades, nothing stands out quite as starkly as marijuana “policy” and foreign policy when it comes to Cuba. They are holdovers from an earlier time; they were a mistake then, and they're even more of a mistake now. So pretty much any change is likely to be in the right direction – not that it will salvage the overall reputation of Obama & Co., but it will at least be part of his legacy. Just as even a stopped clock is right twice a day, even a bad president can do something right now and then, if only by accident.

I dealt with the Cuba issue back in December -- on Christmas Eve, in fact.  So now we move on to the second of those small glimmerings of hope -- and, like the first, it is fraught with controversy, with the Republicans reliably being on the wrong side of the issue, nearly unanimously.  (Does this portend a conversion on my part?  Far from it!  I merely point out that even people who are wrong most of the time can occasionally get something right… and that people who have the right ideas at least some of the time can also be stuck in a quagmire of ignorance on other issues.)

The War on Marijuana -- where to begin?  And I call it that because it’s distinct from the War on Drugs… not that they aren’t both dismal failures.  When it comes to powerful opiates and other drugs, especially the ones concocted these days in secret laboratories and sold under any number of “groovy” or ironic names, but which seem capable of causing massive damage, there is, and always was, a grain of truth to the notion that society deserved some sort of “protection”, although what that was, and where in the cycle it needed to be applied, was another matter.  I will argue -- and I’m far from alone in this -- that drugs are, or should be, more of a public health issue than a legal issue, although when something has a sufficiently severe impact on public health then perhaps the law should step in (but again, in what way is open to discussion).  One suggestion, on the conceptual level, is that selling mystery drugs of unknown content and dosage, and with unknown side effects, is a form of fraud compounded by assault, and pretty much any libertarian would agree that it’s a proper role of government to guard against both fraud and assault.  On the other hand, selling something of known content (and therefore dosage), with known side effects, should be permitted if the side effects -- i.e. potential for damage -- are insufficient to deprive people of the freedom to acquire and use said substance, which would, I would say, be true in virtually all cases, if we are to call ourselves a free people.  This has been the policy vis-à-vis alcohol since the end of Prohibition (another dismal failure, with the only real winners being organized crime), and is certainly the policy for garden-variety tranquilizers, stimulants, and so forth (either prescription or non-prescription).  In these cases, substance “abuse” really is a public health problem, and is dealt with by counseling and extra-legal intervention.  It only gets “legal” when prescription drugs are falsely acquired (fraud again) or illegally sold (marginal assault). 

So, that’s one continuum -- call it the legal-to-justifiably-illegal continuum.  But even then, there is a maze of issues having to do with type and strength of drug (think:  cocaine in powder form vs. “crack”), type and severity of punishment, and who to blame.  It is this last factor that starts us down the road of socio-political-historical analysis.  For who is to blame if Person A sells something bad to Person B?  We commonly punish dealers more severely than addicts, but we still punish addicts; they are not just victims, but are to blame in some way -- but in what way?  If they were only making foolish decisions about their health (or financial situation) it would be an occasion for counseling.  And yet we have a way of punishing the “users” not just for doing something dangerous, but for displaying moral weakness or turpitude of some sort.  And this, in turn, is the product of a judgment on the part of not only the courts but of society in general -- there are weaknesses and vices that can be excused, and ones that can’t.  But what are the criteria?  Search as you might, you won’t find any that make any real sense.  It’s something that seems obvious because we live with it every day, and always have… but try dissecting it and you come up with a gaping hole.

My position (also not unique, but seldom expressed) is that we are dealing with a metaphysical problem -- an issue of reality, and whose reality is valid and whose is not.  And as in the religious wars of old, if your reality is invalid, it is insufficient to simply tell you so, or present you with alternatives, or even to prevent you from spreading your errors.  No, it is an occasion for punishment -- and what is our national heritage but that of a, basically, fanatical group of Protestants making camp on the shores of Massachusetts Bay in the name of their own religious freedom, only to turn around in short order and deny that same freedom to anyone else they could get their hands on?  This is the essence of Puritanism -- to “purify” not only one’s own life, belief system, and mode of worship, but to purify the world (or as much of it as possible) by relieving it of error -- or, failing that, relieving it of existence.  To the Puritan, there is no intrinsic right to life, nor is there a right to be wrong.  Being wrong, rather, disqualifies you from citizenship in the community, and may deprive you of life if you’re wrong enough.

And I submit that the War on Islam is precisely that -- i.e. it’s our Puritan heritage out in plain sight.  It’s the same attitude, pursued in the same way, with all accompanying dogma and propaganda.  It’s Puritanism for our time, when it comes to foreign policy. 

But domestic Puritanism is every bit as bad, if not worse.  And yes, Prohibition was an example, and it ran parallel with the first (unnamed) war on drugs -- again, treating the issue as a legal/criminal matter right off the bat rather than a matter of public health or fraud.  And since Prohibition turned out to be our greatest domestic folly to date (but nominations are still being accepted), you’d think we would have learned, but we didn’t.

See, the essence of any social system is to, first, define itself, and then, by logical extension, define The Other.  The Other is that which does not conform, and which, therefore, has to be detected, rooted out, banished, punished, incarcerated, killed… anything, in short, that reinforces its status and at the same time attempts to exterminate it.  And whatever makes us think that our society, with its vaunted “traditions of freedom”, is any different when it comes to this very basic, primordial need of social groups?  We may be a bit better in allowing for gray areas, but we are no less zealous when, once The Other is defined, tracking it down and dealing with it.  If we look carefully into our tradition of “tolerance” (now redefined as “diversity”) we find that it operates reasonably well within well-defined limits, but beyond those limits is no more to be found than among ignorant, warring tribes in the most remote places on earth.

Now, clearly, there are many dimensions across which to draw a line separating the good from the bad… the acceptable from the unacceptable… Us from Them.  Most of these dimensions are painfully familiar -- in our history and in the present day.  Think about race, religion, gender, sexual minorities, the handicapped, the diseased (mentally or physically), age, personal appearance… and many more.  It all adds up to reasons to give people a jolt -- to subject them to “correction”… and the “ideal” situation is typically not so much to exterminate (think: genocide) as to keep people around as second-class citizens (or worse -- think:  our enormous prison population).  To keep them around as reminders or bad examples -- at which the authorities can point and say, to the citizenry, "Don't be like that person... or else!" 

Now, in more traditional societies The Other is defined, as mentioned above, by fairly objective traits.  Strangers, aliens, foreigners… all people who might be normal somewhere, but they aren’t normal here, and that’s enough.  Even people who have different creeds -- different religious ideas -- at least belong to a known religion or sect.  It has a name, it has places of worship, it has a holy book, priests, rabbis, imams, preachers… whatever.  Our society, on the other hand, has a chronic dilemma when it comes to defining The Other, because, to begin with, we fancy ourselves free and open, and welcoming to any and all of the oppressed, needy, persecuted, etc. from around the world (“I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”).  Not only that, but we take great pride in the fact that, no matter where from or what their original beliefs and values were, people landing on our shores are eager to “assimilate”, and, by and large, have succeeded in doing so.  But even that narrative has fallen on hard times, with more and more immigrant groups preferring to remain themselves -- think Hispanics and Moslems. 

But, again, traditionally -- in most of our history -- people have jumped happily into the great American melting pot.  And yet human nature dictates that there must be The Other, and there’s the dilemma.  That’s the point at which we discover that there remain lumps in that melting pot -- that some people, habits, beliefs, etc. are not so amenable to homogenization.  So blacks, while freed, remained second-class citizens, as did Hispanics, Catholics, Orientals, and others.  Legally, there was no difference; pragmatically, they were worlds apart.  And this satisfied the requirements of the ruling elite and its acolytes… and those who didn’t measure up seldom objected, since they were still better off here than they would have been in most other places. 

But there was another level of alienation and division, and it was based on our status as an ideational society.  You could be, technically and legally, an American, and even behave as an American most of the time, but there was a further requirement, and an abstract one at that -- you had to “believe in” America the way people believe in a religion.  You had to be willing to, basically, worship an abstraction the way other people worship God, deities, a messiah, or even the stars and planets.  And part of believing in America was not just saluting the flag or singing the right songs on the right holidays or pledging the right pledges -- it was embracing the historic, social, and political reality of the culture, and forsaking all others.  Adopting and absorbing the narrative, in other words.  In a more typical society this step wouldn’t have been necessary, because people would have already made all the natural commitments that anyone could have expected them to make -- to race, ethnicity, tribe, religion, family, etc.  But in our society, these were all mere steppingstones… things that were only of value to the extent they were “supportive of” the overarching patriotic and nationalistic ideal.  (And anything not so supportive had to be lopped off and discarded, even as “identity politics” requires everyone to relinquish their cultural heritage, except for a few certified victim groups, and even their cultural heritage has to be sanitized beyond recognition.) 

But it doesn’t end there.  (Surely you didn’t expect otherwise!)  Ideas about America -- its God-given mission and destiny -- are one thing, but the thought-tyranny has to go even deeper, right down to people’s perceptions of reality in general.  (“Hate crimes” -- which are thought crimes by a different name -- are a recent invention; I’m talking about something that goes much further back.)  I’m not talking about the “mentally ill” here, because they are easily dismissed except for the most radical theorists.  (There may be some wisdom in madness -- there is certainly creativity there -- but it’s not typically a rich resource for a culture.)  I’m simply talking about the people who are in the world, and whose “reality testing” is sound enough most of the time, but feel that there is, or might be, something more, and who want the freedom to explore that possibility.  These are the people -- it turns out -- who were, back in the revolutionary 1960s, considered to be the most dangerous members of society… not the “draft dodgers” or war protesters… not the hard-core drug addicts… not the violent criminals… because, in some way, they shared the same overall perception of reality as most other people.  They were reading off the same sheet of metaphysical music, as it were.  No, it was the humble hippie with his long hair, beads, and bell bottoms who drove the establishment into a violent frenzy, simply because he refused to accept its version of reality; he had to find out for himself.  So the War on Marijuana, which had had racist overtones from the start, also acquired a new layer of Puritanism, persecution, and violence, and many were the hapless victims who were crushed under its wheel.   Suddenly it was no longer white vs. black, Protestant vs. Catholic, or any of the other traditional fault lines, but, most typically white vs. white -- or, Reality Type A vs. Reality Type B (or C, D, etc.). 

And did this new form of bigotry and persecution cause any uprising of protest among society at large?  Not a bit of it.  They were secretly (or not so secretly) glad to see the hippies “getting theirs” after daring to explore new metaphysical and epistemological horizons, and enjoying themselves in a most flagrant, unseemly manner.  (Who says the politics of envy is confined to minorities?)  So the establishment erupted in a show of totalitarian violence and cruelty possibly unmatched by any prior episode in our history, and certainly unmatched by anything that has happened since.  And while marijuana was not the only substance at issue, it was the most iconic because of what it had come to symbolize.  

To sum up, a racist society is hostile toward other races.  A theocracy is hostile toward other religions.  And an ideational society is hostile toward other ideas, but also toward notions of reality that are incompatible with the orthodoxy.  So in a paradoxical way, the hostility of an ideational society, even if the ideas involve “freedom”, goes deeper than the hostility of a more traditional society.  It goes, that is, right to the core of being… with how an individual identifies himself with respect to not only other individuals and society, but to reality in general… and, perhaps, to what he considers a greater, or higher, reality -- a hidden reality, perhaps, but one that is nonetheless real, and possibly more real than the one we are accustomed to, which may be illusory.  And this is the one thing an ideational society cannot tolerate.  It is an “existential threat”, not in the physical sense but in the philosophical one -- and if a few long-haired hippies could threaten the very foundations of our society by smoking a few joints, those foundations, and that society, must have been in a sorry state indeed -- in an advanced state of decay and deterioration -- which, some would have said back when the Vietnam conflict was in full swing, was very much the case.  We were as morally weak at that point as we have ever been, so it’s no coincidence that so many decided to “tune in, turn on, and drop out”, and that the reaction was so desperate and extreme.  The society -- the nation --  was crying out for help at that time, but all anyone heard, or wanted to hear, was gunfire and the sound of prison doors closing.


And yet, the conflict waned, but did not cease -- it continues to this day.  But the most radical elements faded, as radical elements always do, to be replaced by day-to-day functionaries with no theories, just habits.  People turned to other things -- from exhaustion or, perhaps, sheer love of novelty over principle.  And the system had other things on its mind as well.  The war in Vietnam -- that great engine of the 1960s and early 1970s -- ended ignominiously, the hippies left the cities and retired to farms and communes across the countryside, and disco took over (funny how a culture can degenerate in the twinkling of an eye).  There was a truce of sorts when it came to the reality question -- not quite up to the standard of tolerance or “live and let live”, but better than open warfare.  But the system survived intact… people stayed in jail… irrational laws stayed on the books.  But a new cultural gray area had developed, populated by “new age” types who weren’t as engaged in open rebellion so much as cultural revolution of a generally quiet and gradual kind.  And this seems, at long last, to have borne fruit in the form of relaxed restrictions on marijuana, or even doing away with them altogether.

And I have to admit, I find all of this astonishing in view of the sordid history of the matter.  I always felt that the only way marijuana was going to be legalized would be by way of revolution (call it “regime change”), with blood flowing in the streets.  After all, that’s what took to eliminate slavery, right?  And yet it turned out to be more gradual, not unlike the campaign for women’s suffrage and child labor laws, and -- in our time -- for civil rights of many other varieties.  And of course the perennial question has to be, why did it take so long?  Why couldn’t courageous leaders at the national and state level have done something about this years or decades sooner?  The answer -- as in so many cases -- is that revolution does not -- can not -- come from above, but has to arise from the people.  It’s tempting to think that attitudes at the top changed, but it’s more likely that the mind of the people changed, and that the leadership is merely going wherever the wind blows.  The difference, I suppose, is that this can be done with an attitude of stubbornness, resentment, and foot-dragging (“kicking and screaming“), or it can be done with a more open mind and with respect for the wisdom of the people, and that is what seems to be happening in this case.  So without giving Obama & Co. more credit that they deserve -- they are politicians, after all -- we can at least give them credit for having a light hand, and for allowing certain things to happen, much the way we gave Gorbachev credit for not struggling mightily against the dissolution of the Soviet Union, even if he didn’t especially care for what was going on.  And if they are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, doesn’t that beat doing the wrong thing for… pretty much any reason? 

Opiates of the People

In our disjointed political life, perhaps no symptom is as chronic as the claim that everything any politician does, or wants to do, is “for the people” (or “for the children”, assuming that “children” is a subset of “people”), when in fact nearly everything they do is precisely the opposite.  They are serving corporations, banks, foreign powers, special interests, rent-seekers, and -- last but far from least -- themselves, and any benefits that accrue to the average citizen are mere side effects.  What counts in politics is not results, but stated intentions, as witness the continued woes of “inner cities” after decades of rule by Democrats, who are full of promises but largely empty of results.  But that doesn’t matter, you see, because they “tried”, and they were “compassionate”, and were people “of the people”, whereas the Republicans, apparently, are an alien race from another galaxy determined to spread human suffering as far and wide as possible -- “compassionate conservatism“ being almost universally regarded as a contradiction in terms. 

So if politicians always have to represent “the people”, and be working day and night for the peoples’ interest, then so do political campaigns and political action committees.  No one can come out and say they’re for anything else -- at least not until they take office and are besieged by lobbyists, at which point they go from being populists to being experts in special pleading, and the political train moves on, leaving “the people” on the platform as always.  (The inner cities are far from the only example, but they are the most stark.)

We also have to consider that politicians of various stripes have a wide variety of opinions about “the people” -- about their wisdom, their way of life, their general worthiness.  Communists have, for nearly 100 years now, styled their dictatorships “people’s republics”, as if that everlasting cachet was sufficient to justify all enormities -- which, to easily-misled intellectuals, theorists, and academicians, it does.  No matter if a tyrant sucks the life blood out of the citizenry and confiscates everything of value in the country, he is still a hero to the left if he rules over a “people’s republic”.  (Who says language doesn’t count?  Language is everything.)

But really, haven’t all politicians, at least since the French Revolution, used “the people” as a magic key with which to acquire unlimited power?  Hitler and the Nazi Party were all about the “volk”.  The New Deal glorified the “common man”, picking up where the earlier Progressives had left off.  Who campaigns, or openly leads, on behalf of an elite -- of the rich -- of the well-born -- of the “1%”?  No one, basically.  And yet when it comes to despising, and even fearing, real people and their values and life style, it’s hard to match the liberal/socialist/collectivist elite of any society, including ours.  “The people” are great as an icon -- as subjects of a stirring mural or sculpture or folk song -- but for heaven’s sake stay away from the real thing (as Hillary Clinton invariably does)!  They might start making demands… asking questions… exposing some weakness in your arguments... calling you a hypocrite or an elitist.  Why, they might even be dangerous.  And one thing is certain, they will always be guilty of the cardinal sins of our time:  racism, sexism, homophobia, and now “transphobia”, not to mention general “hate”. 

So if “the people” is a universal theme in politics, how to explain populism, or what might be called “people-ism”?  I mean, if it’s always about the people how can populists be even more about the people than anyone else?  I think the answer is that the populists are, at least at the beginning, actually sincere and non-hypocritical.  They genuinely want what’s best for the ordinary citizen, but this is where things break down.  For who is an ordinary citizen?  And who are his enemies?  Take the two most prominent populist movements of our time, the Tea Party and “Occupy”.  They are each for the people, but on closer inspection they are only for a segment of the people, and those segments do not overlap.  “Occupy” seems obsessed with Wall Street and the rich, but their only answer is more government regulation (including confiscatory taxation), which automatically means bigger government.  (They ignore the fact that it's precisely big government in partnership with big business that has created the situation they are protesting.)  It is basically a revolt of the allegedly disenfranchised against privilege, with the middle class being pretty much ignored except when they are acting as tools of the elite.  The Tea Party, on the other hand, is about the middle class being liberated from Big Government (which, basically, means from redistribution of wealth), with both the rich and the poor being pretty much ignored.  So each of these movements represents a segment that the other has no interest in.  And the rich don’t need representation, obviously, since they already have it -- in the form of bought and paid-for politicians.  The problem the Tea Party has with the rich is that they would all like the chance to get rich themselves, so they’re not about to suggest making wealth illegal, the way the Occupiers and other radical socialists do.  And the Occupiers, like so many of their communist/collectivist forebears, know that getting rid of the rich is only the first step -- one must also get rid of the middle class in order to achieve a true worker’s paradise.  It’s not so much that the middle class are an economic burden as that they’re a metaphysical burden.  To the purist who dreams of a class-free society, they’re an eyesore -- a non-necessity that must be eliminated as soon as possible (if need be, even with the aid of the rich and their political servants).  To put it another way, the middle class has no friends except itself, whereas the rich enjoy the esteem of the middle class (and the envy of the lower class), and the lower class has at least a claim on the guilt of some of the middle class (but not of the rich, who never feel guilty about anything).     

Populism of any sort is bound to fail in the long run, or even the medium run, simply because “the people” (or whatever one’s preferred subset is) have no political power.  Really, you might ask?  But don’t we still have elections, and the right to vote?  Right -- we need to talk.  Let’s just cut to the chase and say that the people have their leaders handed to them, and don’t have a whole lot of say in the matter -- and that those leaders are already working for someone, and it isn’t you.  As one political commentator once said, anything they allow you to vote on can’t be that important.  (And that includes, obviously, who’s president, governor, Congressman, etc.)  Plus, our very governmental structure makes it inevitable that a fool and his vote are soon parted.  We don’t live in a radical democracy where every question or issue is brought up for a popular vote.  We live in a republic, and therein lies the disconnect.  Politicians are ostensibly elected by the people, but once elected they answer to higher powers, simply because that’s where the power, money, and other privileges reside.  Winning an election instantly propels you into a privileged class, where you enter a protective, well-defended bubble, never to return to ordinary existence (which makes it laughable every time some candidate starts bragging about his or her humble origins -- they're trying to shed and escape those humble origins as soon and as thoroughly as possible).  It really is like something right out of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” -- the regular Joe you voted for yesterday comes back strangely changed… in a sort of trance… robot-like.  We see this effect right up the line, including presidents.  They get “the talk”, they get that plate installed in their skull, and they become living, breathing servants of the Regime… political zombies who are subordinate to stronger wills.  And this process has to start fairly far down the line politically, because, after all, it is from those grass roots and farm teams that tomorrow’s leaders come (after many rounds of meticulous vetting, you may be sure).  (You think it’s an accident that some political candidates “come out of nowhere”?  No -- they come out of somewhere… out of some political hatchery… some provincial hotbed of corruption… so by the time they appear on the national scene they are ready for prime time, thoroughly trained and conditioned like athletes, and ready for the rough and tumble.) 

Another bit of evidence is that populist movements tend to be short-lived.  Heard about any “Occupiers” lately?  How about the Tea Party?  Is it about to make a comeback?  Highly doubtful.  What typically happens is that people drop out from sheer fatigue or discouragement (“burn-out”), or they become co-opted by more establishment entities, or they go the other way and become more radicalized, confining their efforts to university and college campuses, obscure political journals, fringe “think tanks”, and (in our time) the Internet.  But their day is over, and all of the initiative is passed into other hands. 

But what’s wrong with populist movements -- their fatal flaws -- isn’t necessarily wrong with the people per se.  What’s wrong with the people is that, as I indicated previously, no one is actually interested in what they think, but what they ought to think.  So to the Soviets, every peasant, factory worker, and soldier was a sophisticated political, economic, and social theorist -- or should have been -- or will be, the minute he attends a few evening sessions with the political officer of the factory, collective farm, or military unit.  The problems arise when people turn out to have the same old ideas, values, and goals their ancestors had, focused on outmoded things like race, ethnic group, tribe, religion, family, and gender.  So clearly these things have to be dealt with first -- the table has to be cleared -- and the foremost instruments for accomplishing this are the media and the public schools (along with ancillary organs like libraries and social “service” organizations).  And every nation on the road to totalitarianism has come up with a slightly different formula for accomplishing these things -- with different degrees of severity and different concepts of reward and punishment.  But they usually perish or seriously decay before they fully succeed in getting human nature out of human beings.  Oh sure, some people fall into line and conform perfectly -- or at least seem to.  They turn into little goose-stepping robots and love and adore Big Brother.  And they are heartbroken when it all comes crashing down, and turn into what are then called “reactionaries”, which is ironic because they spent all of their prime years fighting “reactionaries”.  But they are typically in the minority; everyone else heaves a big sigh of relief (volume to be adjusted depending on who might be listening). 

In a society that is totalitarian in many ways but remains laissez faire in many ways, such as ours, the populism issue takes on different dimensions.  Genuine populists have no clout with the establishment… “for the people” hypocrites are in nominal control… and the elite for whom the “common people” are as dispensable as flies are actually in charge.  It is out of this witch’s brew that we are able to have endless wars that further enrich the already rich, but which “the people” nonetheless support simply because it would be shameful to do anything else.  (This comes under the heading of a cultural habit which is supported by a national mythology, and which gives rise to any number of cultural memes and tics -- like ribbons, flags, and bumper stickers.)  The problem the genuine populists have -- what frustrates them to no end on any given day -- is that “the people”, whom they like to think they represent and whose interests they have at heart, by and large don’t care.  They’d rather just plod along through the day, get stoned, drunk, or distracted by “entertainment” on the weekend, and not have to worry about “issues”.  So, ironically, populism always becomes a plaything of the minority, if it didn‘t start out that way.  And doesn’t some resentment eventually develop, like, I’m working my butt off for these people and they don’t even care?  I’ll bet it does, and I’ll bet that has a lot to do with the attrition rate among populist theorists and “leaders” (assuming that’s not a contradiction in terms, the way “anarchist government” would be).  And some will make the point that the people would be more interested in the issues  -- especially the ones that directly impact their quality of life -- if they weren’t so distracted by “games and circuses”.  And they (the critics) will convey the suspicion that these distractions are part of the program -- that they are the way in which the Regime keeps people pacified, placated, and anaesthetized.  True enough, and, to give one example, I often marvel at how readily the Regime dispatched the Black Power movement in years gone by.  The weapon of choice was drugs -- cheap, powerful, and the supply was virtually limitless (as it still is, for that matter).  The few radical leaders who didn’t wind up dead or in jail based on entanglement with drugs retired from the scene (to academics or quiet writing, or even mainstream politics in a few cases), hoping that the next generation would succeed where they had failed.  And what did the next generation wind up with?  Sex (abortion), more drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll (rap, hip-hop, etc.).  Busted again.  Busted, co-opted, neutralized, and basically nutted.  So yes, the Regime has ways of dealing with troublemakers, and their spotlights are ever on the move, like in some old prison-break movie.

Here’s another concept to try out before we close.  It’s what I call the “moral watershed”.  In any society, no matter how advanced or well-founded, there will inevitably be some members who are moral actors, and not dependent on time, place or circumstance to remain so… others who are intrinsically immoral, or at least amoral -- morally neutral… and others who are easily swayed by clever arguments from either side, most of which boil down to money, creature comforts, and leisure time.  Let us say further that the proportions of these three groups varies with the particular society we’re talking about.  But let’s also say that this division cuts across all other divisions, like race, ethnicity, religion, social class, occupation, etc.  There can be moral, immoral, or indifferent people in any group, in other words -- not disallowing the high probability of some strong correlations. 

What’s important is not that this situation exists, because it is, I feel, universal -- you won’t find a society without it.  What counts is the side of the divide on which certain key people fall -- political and religious leaders certainly, police and the military, “capitalists” in advanced societies, and, in our time, “entertainment” and media moguls -- those who represent the propaganda arm of the Regime.  For any given level of society, who has the power, and are they moral or otherwise?  It’s a simple question, but one that has to be asked again and again -- as with the current controversy over policing in black neighborhoods.  And the problem is that things tend to default to the weakest link.  You can have a sound city government, but if the police force includes criminal types, all the good intentions of city hall don’t matter.  Or, you can start with a morally-sound military but then add morally-corrupt civilian overseers (yes, it can happen).  The result -- unjust and immoral military operations with the resulting frustrations, traumas, atrocities, etc.  Any number of other cases, both theoretical and actual, can be proposed.  The point is that we live in a moral “mix”, and while there is more than enough blame to go around, it tends to be unfocused because people don’t understand the roots of the problem.

Our society, it seems, has undergone a tipping of the balance at some point.   There may have been a time when we were a mostly (never entirely) moral people with leaders with high ethical standards and high standards of personal conduct.  (I say “may have” because who can ever be certain?)  But each national crisis has caused a falling from grace -- sometimes subtle, sometimes more dramatic.  The Civil War was a catastrophe from which we have yet to fully recover -- as witness the absurd controversy over the Confederate battle flag.  Then we have various imperialist exertions like the Philippines and Panama… empire-building (AKA “stepping out onto the world stage”) in World Wars I and II, the Cold War, Vietnam, and the current array of wars, mini-wars, proxy wars, “conflicts”, and “police actions”.  Each of these set us down a moral notch -- or more than one -- and have we done anything to make up for these moral setbacks?  Could we have?  Was it even possible?  Or is it just one of those things that, once lost, can never be regained?  And when it comes to the moral watershed, it seems like more and more of our leadership and our culture on all levels has migrated to the other side, with predictable results -- pretending to do things, both foreign and domestic, based on principle, whereas they are based purely on politics and moral relativism.  And this may be a perfectly natural progression -- or regression -- and it may be unavoidable.  The issue then is, at what point do we decide that the American Experiment has run its course and it’s time for a fresh start?